An Australia Card for people with unpopular habits

When does the Nanny State become a civil liberties question? When public health activists call for the government to monitor, record, limit, and license consumption.

The University of Sydney’s Simon Chapman appeared in PLOS Medicine last week urging just that. Under his proposal, all smokers would have to pay for a smartcard licence, at cost that is neither “trivial nor astronomical”, to be renewed every year. Licence holders would have to swipe their smartcard every time they made a purchase. They would have a maximum daily purchase. The government would hold a large database on their activity, which, Chapman points out, “would be of great assistance to policy and program planners wanting to maximize cessation.” That database would be linked to their identity.

New smokers applying for a licence would “have to pass a knowledge of risk test” to “ensure that new smokers were making an informed choice”. These conditions could be varied over time: Chapman mentions one idea to slowly increase the minimum legal smoking age, but given the government would now have a deep set of data on tobacco use at the level of the individual, it is not hard to see how this program could expand. People could be given different limits. The maximum purchase could be ratcheted down as we approach what Chapman calls the “endgame”.

Chapman writes that his proposal would “invite reflection among smokers on why this exceptional policy had been introduced”.

It might invite some other reflections, too.

Of all the possible objections raised in his paper, Chapman does not tackle the most glaring: that it is an obscene idea to have the government monitor and control an individual’s free consumption. Until relatively recently, Nanny State advocates were able to hide behind a certain benevolent guise: they were nudging us to make health choices, not forcing us. When you raise the tax on a product, it creates an incentive to buy less of that product, not an order. This paper demonstrates that, at least in some public health circles, that guise was utterly fraudulent.

A licence for smokers – an Australia Card for people with unpopular habits – would be a clear threat to the privacy of those who chose to smoke and an attack on individual liberty.

The phrase used by public health activists is “tobacco control”. In this case it is not tobacco they are seeking to control, but people.