Would you think twice about smoking if you had to apply for and pay for a licence in order to purchase tobacco products? What if the application included a test to establish whether or not you are actually aware of the health implications of smoking or if the licence came in the form of a swipe card which limited your daily tobacco purchases?
Sounds rather extreme and verging on 'big brother' right? Well, it's actually the proposal of Australian public health expert, Professor Simon Chapman of Sydney University. Prof Chapman reckons that such a licence could provide a really practical disincentive for smokers. But how would such a scheme work?
Prof Chapman says that there are insufficient controls in the sale of tobacco products; pretty much anyone can sell them. He cites the analogy of a medical prescription which is essentially a temporary licence which enables the holder to purchase pharmaceuticals. Unbelievable then that a product which causes millions of deaths and costs billions annually in medical treatment which would be unnecessary if no-one smoked, is so freely available.
The licence would take the form of a swipe card which smokers would have to apply for. Retailers would not be permitted to sell tobacco products to anyone without a card. As with pharmacists who supply drugs to someone without a prescription, retailers would risk losing their retail licence if they were caught selling tobacco to someone without a licence. There would also be a component of the licence application process which would limit the quantity of tobacco products the holder could buy.
The licence would incur a cost to the smoker, would require the inconvenience of renewal and could even be refused or revoked in the event that the holder became seriously unwell as a result of their smoking habit. There could even be a financial incentive built in to encourage smokers to quit; their total licence fees might be refunded to them on condition that they were not allowed to apply for a licence at any time in the future.
Critics of the proposal say that the licence would only punish the smoker and not the tobacco industry itself. Bans on smoking in public places have been broadly accepted whereas a smoking licence would be seen as a more targeted attack and deemed to be "health fascism". Smokers should be able to make an informed health choice rather than have to sit a test to obtain a licence; it's just the nanny state gone mad! The scheme would be nearly impossible to police, would be ridiculously expensive to administer and would encourage a 'black market' in tobacco products. It is also suggested that the scheme would merely serve to punish poor smokers who have already been hit in the pocket by increased taxation, although Prof Chapman opines that this is a good thing. The addition of a licence fee, he says, will encourage poorer smokers to quit.
The UK Department of Health was keen to stress that it had no plans to introduce a licence for the purchase of tobacco products.