Do you think that people should have a license to smoke?

That is what one public health expert is advocating. Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney believes that, to curb smoking habits, governments should issue smoking licenses.

His radical plan would require smokers to take a test about the dangers of smoking, with thought-provoking questions like "If 100 people were diagnosed with lung cancer, how many would we expect to be alive in 5 years time?" He hopes that smokers would be deterred by the fees associated with obtaining and renewing their licenses.

Licenses would also allow smokers to buy a limited quantity of cigarettes per month, and fees for the license would increase the more cigarettes that they would want to buy.

However, fees would be returned, with interest, if a person wanted to quit, providing an incentive to quit smoking. Though smokers would have a six-month period to decide whether they were surely giving up their license, after that period they would not be allowed to re-apply for a license.

Chapman points out that governments regularly prohibit certain types of drugs and alcohol, yet tobacco can be purchased by nearly anyone at any time and will be responsible for a billion deaths by the end of this century. "[There] would seem to be a case for redressing this bizarre but historically based inconsistency," Chapman says in PLoS One.

Chapman acknowledges that the licensing would create a black market for tobacco use, but says that there is already one for suppliers who try to evade taxes. Chapman also notes that some may view his plan as an effort to punish the poor, who already have been hit hard by taxes, but he says that he hopes that a license plan would just help poor people quit.

Jeff Collin from the University of Edinburgh disagrees with the plan. While smoke-free areas have been largely seen as liberal public health measures to protect children, people with allergies, and so forth, he says that Chapman's draconian scheme will be seen as a gift to the tobacco industry.

Collin also argues that the plan targets consumers, rather than the tobacco industry, which should be the real focus.

Collin notes that the license would be completely impractical in most countries. "In the United Kingdom, for example, successive governments have failed to introduce identity cards," he points out.