What next after the imposition of sky-high taxes, the curbing of sales, bans on advertising and display and a world-first obligation on tobacco companies to sell cigarettes in plain packets? Sydney University public health expert Simon Chapman has urged the Australian government to get further in front by issuing smokers with annual licences that would specify the number of cigarettes they could buy.
Giving up and surrendering the licence would be rewarded with the reimbursement, with interest, of all the fees paid. If you quit at 40, for example, you might be looking at a windfall of a few thousand dollars.
“If you put an extra dollar on a pack and put that into the incentive fund, the person quitting would get all that money back as well,” Mr. Chapman said.
A particular glory of the licensing system would be a streamlined anti-smoking campaign, with health authorities benefiting from having a list of smokers’ addresses and details of their habit. Someone who, for example, showed resolve one year about giving up by claiming 10 cigarettes a day rather than 20 could be targeted with an individual incentive to take that last step.
Mr. Chapman wants governments to be bold in their thinking and treat tobacco like the dangerous substance it is.
“Products that promote health, or ease pain or prolong your life are handed out very judiciously,” he said. “You’ve got to go through a doctor and you get from the doctor what is in effect a temporary licence to consume a limited quantity of those products.”
Cigarettes, in contrast, are freely available to any adult.A permit to pollute your lungs would give official recognition to the link between smoking and cancer.
“Tobacco is sold in the way it is because the mode of commerce was established long before the evidence was in about the harms of smoking,” Mr. Chapman said. “But we’ve had that evidence since the 1950s and we continue to treat it like it was a commodity like bread and milk.” Sure, the system would be complex. Licensed tobacco retailers would need a swipe-card reader and be forbidden from selling to anyone without a licence. Those applying for a licence would take a test to see whether they fully understood the perils of smoking.
That the tobacco industry would fight the initiative tooth and nail was evident from a statement that British American Tobacco issued this year.
“We understand that some people don’t like smoking,” the company said in a response to No Smoking Day. “And it’s their right to feel like that. Many adults, however, enjoy smoking and will continue to do so and it’s their right to do that too. We sell a controversial product, but it’s a legal one.” Jeff Collin, a public health specialist from Scotland’s Edinburgh University, condemned Chapman’s proposal from a different perspective, saying the focus of anti-smoking campaigns should stay with the providers, rather than shift to consumers.
Another obvious criticism is that, if tobacco is so harmful, why not bite the bullet and ban it? “There would be chaos,” Mr. Chapman said. “Some people are profoundly addicted. It would be a recipe for a very serious black market supplying those desperate people.”