It’s a radical proposal that will be welcomed warmly by some and labelled outrageous by others – introducing a ‘smoker’s licence’ to help reduce the damaging effects of tobacco.

The unusual suggestion was made by Professor Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney in Australia in this week’s PLOS Medicine.

Users would have to apply and pay for a mandatory licence in the form of a smartcard that would be shown when buying cigarettes. Dr Chapman said this could discourage teenagers from picking up the habit.

The anti-smoking activist argues the sale of tobacco is currently subject to trivial controls compared to other dangerous products that threaten both public and personal safety.

‘The prolonged use of tobacco causes the death of about half its
users, with a billion people this century predicted to die from
tobacco caused disease,’ he said.

‘No other human activity causes a remotely comparable number of annual deaths.’

Controversially, the smartcard would allow the government to limit how many cigarettes a smoker could buy – Prof Chapman suggests 50 per day averaged over two weeks to accommodate heavy smokers.

He said the licence would be reissued every year, smokers setting daily limits for the number of cigarettes they buy. They would also be tested on their knowledge of the health risks of smoking.

He added that the data collected from smartcard applications could be used to formulate better smoking prevention strategies.

Prof Chapman said: ‘Opponents of the idea would be quick to suggest that Orwellian social engineers would soon be calling for licenses to drink alcohol and to eat junk food or engage in any ‘risky’ activity.

‘This argument rests on poor public understanding of the magnitude of the risks of smoking relative to other cumulative everyday risks to health.’
However, in a response article Professor Jeff Collin from the University of Edinburgh said a smoker’s licence would not be workable.

He  said: ‘The authoritarian connotations of the smoker’s license would inevitably meet with broad opposition. In the United Kingdom, for example, successive governments have failed to introduce identity cards.’

He added that a licence would further stigmatise and alienate smokers and would shift the focus away from the tobacco industry which he thinks is the real culprit.

‘Fundamental challenge confronting any endgame strategy is that the move towards a tobacco-free society should address the social determinants of health and promote equity and social justice,’ he said.

‘The proposal for a smoker’s license should be rejected as failing this challenge.’
The UK have brought in a range of measures in recent years to discourage the habit. Smoking was banned in enclosed public places in England in July 2007, including bars and restaurants (following Scotland and Wales.)

Packets of cigarettes were then hidden from view in large shops in April this year and small newsagents will have to have followed suit by April 2015.

A UK-wide consultation on government plans to introduce mandatory plain packaging for tobacco closed in August. The government said it would make a decision when the responses had been considered.