One of the government's favourite professional thinkers, Professor Julian Le Grand of the LSE, has proposed that smokers should be forced to buy a permit in order to purchase cigarettes. The cost of the permits should not, he thinks, be particularly high, at least initially. Perhaps £10. But they should be made as awkward and time-consuming as possible to obtain:
Suppose every individual who wanted to buy tobacco had to purchase a permit. And suppose further they had to do this every year. To get a permit would involve filling out a form and supplying a photograph, as well as paying the fee. Permits would only be issued to those over 18 and evidence of age would have to be provided. The money raised would go to the NHS.
This would, thinks Le Grand, serve as an admirable deterrent. It wouldn't be an interference with freedom, he claims, because anyone could still smoke if they wanted to. Indeed, he describes the proposal as "libertarian paternalism", which must be the winner, if there were such a competition, of oxymoron of the week.
Not surprisingly, the nation's top blog ranters, like Dizzy and Devil's Kitchen, have laid into the proposal with relish. "Quite apart from creating yet more vast swathes of civil servant jobs, it is just absolutely beyond the fucking pale as far as freedom is concerned," says the Devil. Quite so.
The trouble is, this nation sold the pass on freedom a long time ago. Once you've established (and it's now so established it's almost completely uncontroversial) that it should be illegal to drive your own car unless you're wearing a seatbelt, despite the fact that the only person you're likely to hurt is yourself - not to mention the studies that show consistently that drivers without seatbelts tend to drive more carefully - then there's little you can object to, as a matter of principle, in whatever the state should choose to propose "for your own good". Utilitarianism, and paternalism, rules.
Indeed, there's a stronger case for regulating smokers than there ever was for regulating seatbelt-wearers. Drivers who don't wear seatbelts might, if they are very unlucky, get killed in a car-crash. Smokers will damage their health, and shorten their lives, unless they're extremely fortunate. The health-risks of passive smoking may have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes by the anti-smoking lobby, but the social impact of smoking on other people can't be denied: the unpleasant, lingering smell of stale smoke which necessitates forking out for dry-cleaning, the eye-irritation, the impure and polluted air.
Some things have improved since smoking in "enclosed public places" was banned, but others have got worse. On hot, still days public parks, once urban paradises, have come almost to resemble the pubs of old, with small, foul clouds of malodorous toxicity floating gently on the breeze. Most smoking, one assumes, is now done at home, with potentially serious consequences for children who are, in any case, far more vulnerable than adults to passive smoke.
As it happens, I think Le Grand's proposals stink, but because they are yet another exercise in invasive bureaucracy, another opening for prying, nannying, hectoring, illiberal snooping, not because they target smokers. And smokers should beware. They are still a significant minority, but they are a shrinking and unfashionable one. Once the idea gets around that "something must be done", and that idea is fast becoming received wisdom, then the only question becomes, "What?" If not this proposal, then perhaps some other less expensive, less cumbersome, and less easily-circumvented one. To do nothing will no longer be an option. And expect the cost of smoking to the NHS to become an increasingly quoted, and increasingly precise, figure.
Proposals like this tend to go through 4 main stages.
First, incredulity. "What a ridiculous suggestion," they say.
Second, outrage. "Bloody cheek," they say. "Little Hitlers"
Third, scepticism. "It sounds like a good idea," they say. "But it'll never work, or it'll be too expensive, or there will be widespread disobedience."
Finally, people are amazed it didn't happen sooner.
And then, it's on to the next lunatic-sounding proposal. Cholesterol rationing, perhaps.