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Public Health Proposal Considers Mandatory ‘Smokers License’

By Benjamin Fearnow
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A recent public health proposal looks at the pros and cons of enforced "smoker's licenses" to curb international tobacco use. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A recent public health proposal looks at the pros and cons of enforced “smoker’s licenses” to curb international tobacco use. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBS DC) – A public health proposal suggests that tobacco smokers should be required to apply and pay for a “smoker’s license” in order to continue buying cigarettes.

In this week’s PLOS Medicine medical journal, two leading tobacco control advocates debate the merits of the smoker’s license. Simon Chapman, a professor at the University of Sydney, proposes that users would have to apply and pay for a mandatory license in the form of a smartcard that would be shown when buying cigarettes.

Dr. Chapman wrote that it could discourage young people from picking up the habit.

In a controversial move, the smartcard would allow the government to limit how many cigarettes a smoker could buy. Professor Chapman suggests 50 per day averaged over two weeks to accommodate heavy smokers. The anti-smoking activist told the Daily Mail that the sale of tobacco is currently subject to trivial controls compared to other dangerous products that threaten both public and personal safety.

A 2009 study from the Pew Research Center found that for the period of January through June 2008, the share of current smokers in the American adult population was 20.8 percent. According to statistics on the PLOS journal’s website, tobacco continues to kill millions of people around the world each year and usage is even increasing in some countries.

Arguing against the smoker’s license in the journal is Jeff Collin, a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Collin wrote that it would shift focus away from the real vector of the epidemic—the tobacco industry—and focusing on individuals would censure victims, increase stigmatization of smokers, and marginalize the poor.

Professor Collin believes that limits to personal freedom will doom such legislation.

“The authoritarian connotations of the smoker’s license would inevitably meet with broad opposition,” Collin told the Daily Mail. “In the United Kingdom, for example, successive governments have failed to introduce identity cards.”

Citing future scientific benefit, Prof. Chapman wrote that the information collected from smartcard applications could be used to formulate better smoking prevention strategies.

“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,” Dr. Chapman told the Daily Mail. “This argument rests on poor public understanding of the magnitude of the risks of smoking relative to other cumulative everyday risks to health.”

According to its website, PLOS Medicine is a non-profit organization of scientists and physicians committed to making the world’s scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource.

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