Today it was proposed that smokers should have to buy an annual permit if they want to be able to buy cigarettes. The proposal, by government advisory board Health England, is that smokers would have to choose to “opt in” to buying tobacco by paying £10 a year for a permit. The permit would have to be renewed every year, which would involve filling in a long form. This, more than the cost, would hopefully deter some smokers. It is also thought that, faced with having to make a conscious decision to apply for the licence, some of the many smokers who would like to give up would be helped to reach their goal more quickly.
I think this is a great idea, and is actually something that had occurred to me before. Such a licence would also help to prevent sale of tobacco to under-18s, as shopkeepers would have to check the licence, so would not have to guess young people’s ages. It would also mean that smokers’ permits could be revoked if they were found to be deliberately disobeying no smoking laws, or even as punishment if they were convicted of other public order offences (e.g. fighting outside the pub).
The licences need only have a photograph of the holder and a minimum of details, so they needn’t be seen as a breach of someone’s privacy. The holder’s name needn’t even be printed on the it. However, I wouldn’t have any objections to the database of smokers’ names being available to insurance companies, to weed out a few cheats who falsely claim to be non-smokers.
I have to say, though, that I don’t think the £10 charge is necessary. A modest rise in tobacco duty would cover the costs of the scheme. As the health board’s chairman, Julian Le Grand, has said, it’s the form-filling that will put smokers off, not the fee – I don’t imagine £10 per year is going to deter many people, given the fortune they must already be spending on cigarettes. If the permits were available for free on completion of the application form, it would prevent pro-smoking groups being able to complain it was simply “an extra form of taxation” on smokers. If they continued to oppose the permits, one could draw the conclusion that they support sale of cigarettes to under-age people, or that the tobacco manufacturers intend to keep people hooked on smoking who really would like to give up.
Of course, there are people who are saying, “Now it’s tobacco, next it’ll be alcohol.” I actually think a similar sort of permit for buying alcohol (but not necessarily renewable every year) would be a good idea. It would prevent sale of alcohol to under-age people. It could also end the ridiculous situation where a middle-aged person is buying a bottle of wine from the supermarket, but the young checkout operator isn’t old enough to approve the sale to them, even though the customer is clearly over 40, sometimes resulting in the whole queue of people at the checkout being held up for a couple of minutes. The ability to revoke alcohol permits from people would also be a very useful tool in tackling anti-social behaviour. Anyone who’d had their alcohol licence taken off them for a few weeks would no doubt be the subject of ridicule by their peers, the thought of which would be a big deterrent to drunken bad behaviour in the first place.
I do hope the tobacco permit idea is adopted, but think they should reconsider the admin fee. This is an important public health measure, so I hope the government doesn’t simply intend to use it as an opportunity for another stealth tax – or at least, make it look that way to other people.