Thursday, May 26, 2011

Simon Chapman is blowing smoke on smoking

The public debate about smoking in a free society has reached fever-pitch since the federal government announced its plan for olive green plain packets for cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Last week British American Tobacco launched a high profile campaign raising what they see as issues arising from the policy announcement.

This includes an infringement of private property rights inherent in trademarks, and the potential for the Australian taxpayer to foot the bill for compensating tobacco companies for loss of intellectual property.

With the prospect of a legal challenge to the government's push for plain packaging, the Federal Health Minister has continued to talk tough about her plan and has expressed confidence that the legality of the policy will be upheld.

Yet some of the government's key allies, such as the public health lobby, are already hedging their bets on a potentially successful challenge by tobacco companies in the High Court.

This is why over the weekend anti‑tobacco campaigner and University of Sydney academic Simon Chapman turned up the heat with a new proposal to make smoking history, through creating a consumer license to smoke.

Under the proposal, a license would give the smoker a right to a limited quota of tobacco supply, say 10 cigarettes a day or 20 cigarettes a day and so on.  There is a fee payable to government to give the consumer the right to use tobacco.  The more tobacco the license holder pre‑commits to smoke, the higher the license fee involved.

Under the licensing plan consumers would be asked to pass a test, ''not dissimilar to a driving test'' Chapman stated, to qualify for a right to receive a license to legally purchase tobacco.

The public health lobby say that there are precedents to limiting supply of tobacco for paying consumers.  As Chapman suggests, prescription medicines are rationed by pharmacists while hoteliers can be prosecuted for selling alcohol to intoxicated patrons.

Drawing on similar behavioural economic proposals to structure, or nudge, consumer choices, the underlying default assumption for the tobacco license idea is that individuals are blithely unaware of the health effects of smoking.

Based on the questionable notion that smokers lack an awareness of at least three decades of heavily publicised research about health problems that smoking causes, the government would see itself fit to decide for the smoker the amount of cigarettes he or she is allowed to smoke.

This proposal would effectively undercut many years of government‑funded marketing campaigns that have sought to raise awareness of smoking's health consequences but based on the respectful premise of letting adults who smoke decide for themselves.

It couldn't be ruled out, either, that quotas of allowable tobacco consumption would be reduced if the government establishes a license renewal regime.  Think of it as an ETS for cigarettes, with private choices laid to waste by an increasingly intolerant objective to consign smoking as a habit of the past.  Then there is the question of the test that smokers will be forced to undertake to qualify for a license.

What would this involve?  Would it constitute numerous hours of lecturing potential smokers in a Soviet‑style re‑education campaign urging them not to smoke before they even get started?  How much would taxpayers have to pay to fund the so‑called smoking qualification test?

Simon Chapman and his colleagues aspire to make smoking history within 10 to 15 years, and the tobacco license they claim will be just the trick to achieve this objective.

However the reality is likely to be that a smokeless Australia will be for appearances sake only.

For a start many existing smokers will resent having to seek a license to exercise personal choice, with license fees set on top of already significant federal excises that are well in excess of the costs of medical treatment for tobacco‑related illness.

In the last financial year alone the Australian Customs Service seized 68 million counterfeit cigarettes, with an active black market for tobacco likely to increase substantially if consumer tobacco licensing is introduced.

Then there would be the issue of growing Customs and federal and state police enforcement costs, all funded by the taxpayer, to crack down on the sale of tobacco products that manage to escape the consumer licensing net.

This would be quite ironic in the sense that many who favour a reduction in tobacco smoking also urge an end to the costly ''war on drugs'', including against marijuana, being waged by government.

While consumer licensing governing tobacco use might sound reasonable to non‑smokers who don't blink an eye to the fiscal and regulatory persecution of users of a legal, if unhealthy, product, the proposal looks like being all too clever by half.


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