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You Got a License for Those Kools?

• November 13, 2012 • 3:12 PM

Governments routinely restrict the sale of dangerous drugs. The same goes for firearms. But another deadly consumer product—cigarettes—can be purchased by virtually any adult, pretty much anywhere, in any quantity.

“There would seem to be a case for redressing this bizarre but historically based inconsistency,” Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, argues in an opinion piece just posted on the online journal PLOS Medicine. He goes on to offer a creative answer: One should need a license to buy tobacco products.

His detailed proposal, and a thoughtful response from Jeff Collin of the University of Edinburgh’s Global Public Health Unit, make for intriguing reading.

Chapman has thought this idea through quite thoroughly. “All smokers would be required to obtain a smart swipecard license to transact any purchase from a licensed tobacco retailer,” he proposes. “There could be three grades of license: one to 10 cigarettes per day, 11-20 and 21-50. The more cigarettes a licensee opted for, the higher the fee.”

He proposes “for the sake of illustration” that the fee be set at $100 to $200 per year (in U.S. dollars), which would be fully refundable if one kicks the habit. This sort of financial reward could “stimulate cessation,” he argues, adding that the upper level of 50 cigarettes per day could “act as a barrier to unplanned ‘binge’ smoking that occurs now, particularly when alcohol is involved.”

Chapman concedes that a black market for tobacco products would spring up, but adds that one already exists in many places, to avoid paying taxes.

Collin concedes that “Chapman’s analogy with restricted access to medicines has some merit.” But he calls Chapman’s proposal “a gift for the tobacco industry,” one that would effectively give the government’s stamp of approval to their toxic products. For smokers—who, after all, are addicted to nicotine—this proposal “will inevitably be widely perceived as demeaning, onerous and punitive,” he adds.

Collin argues that this sort of legislation would be widely seen as an infringement on personal liberty. In contrast, he notes, laws mandating smoke-free workplaces and public spaces such as restaurants are seen as valid ways of protecting innocents (especially children).

The gradual expansion of those restrictions might be the better way to go. But don’t let me filter their arguments; read both and decide for yourself.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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