An English government agency, Health England, this week proposed a radical licensing scheme which would force smokers to apply for a permit in order to be able to buy cigarettes.
The permit, which would cost £10, would be renewable each year by the smoker’s doctor, and would have to be shown to retailers in order to make any tobacco purchase. Professor Julian Le Grand, Health England’s chairman, claimed that the new bureaucratic obstacle would encourage smokers to quit. "70% of smokers actually want to stop smoking. So if you just make it that little bit more difficult for them to actually re-start or even to start in the first place, yes, I think it will make a big difference."
Britons are no strangers to curbs on their puffing privileges. Beginning in the 1960s, progressively more restrictive new laws addressing the marketing, sale, taxation, health effects and public consumption of tobacco products have made smoking an ever more daunting prospect. The trend culminated last summer in the introduction of a complete ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces such as pubs and restaurants.
Although drastic, the idea of a smokers' permit may not be as controversial as it might first seem. The public smoking ban has proved both popular and effective, with 50% of smokers reporting that they were smoking less since the legislation came into effect. The government in Scotland, where a smoking ban came into force a year before the English one, reported that the health and environmental benefits had been almost immediate, with drastic reductions in secondhand smoke and hospital coronary admissions.
But the plan has drawn criticism from smokers' rights group Forest, who say that smokers are already penalized by the heavy taxes which are levied on cigarettes and should be free to make their own choice. "We are becoming not just a nanny state but a bully state," the group’s spokesman, Simon Clark, said. "There are a whole host of things out there that are potentially dangerous. If smokers are targeted in this way, it's a very short step to slapping a similar charge on anyone who wants to buy alcohol or any other product ministers don’t approve of."