The suggestion by Julian Le Grand, ministerial adviser, that smokers should be obliged to apply for a licence permitting them to buy tobacco seems to have been about as welcome as the sight of a cigarette butt in an ice-cream sundae.
Smokers and tobacco lobby groups were predictably apoplectic about the proposal – though with a faint whiff of martyred vindication to some of their reactions. See, they hinted, we told you they were Nazis and you didn't believe us. Now look what they're planning.
But even anti-smokers didn't exactly rush to applaud the notion. A spokesman for Action on Smoking and Health suggested that Prof Le Grand's proposal to erect another hurdle between smokers and self-harm was unnecessary – given that most smokers already wanted to stop – and, tellingly, the spokesman for Forest and Ash both used the same word – "bully" – in describing the idea. I have a feeling that Lord Darzi's consideration of this particular policy suggestion won't take up a big chunk of his diary time.
One of the things that's wrong with Le Grand's idea – apart from all those quibbles about practicality, implementation and tyrannical paternalism – is that it's aimed at the wrong substance. Even people who don't like cigarette smoke were pretty stoical about putting up with it before the smoking ban came into force, and now that the ban is here it's hard to feel that other people's smoking really constitutes a major social problem. I think anti-smokers perhaps even feel a tiny sliver of guilt at the sight of those die-hards puffing away beneath the pavement heaters ... and they're certainly in a mood to be magnanimous in victory.
The truth is you need a substantial level of public disquiet to justify such an intrusion of the state into the indulgences of the ordinary citizen – and tobacco just doesn't cut it anymore. Nobody fears walking down the street because a bit of passive smoke may be carried towards them on the breeze.
Alcohol would be a far better target for anyone who wants to introduce a nanny state pass law. It has so much going for it, after all ... from recent tabloid panics over the binge-drinking of teenagers and the stealth alcoholism of Britain's middle classes to social costs – human and economic – which dwarf those of tobacco. When a group from the Academy of Medical Sciences recently studied the dangers of a whole range of drugs, illegal and legal, alcohol was found to kill more people than all of the others combined, and a 2003 Cabinet Office paper on the costs of alcohol misuse estimated the overall burden to the economy at somewhere between £18bn and £20bn. Even if you scratch the mysteriously precise figure of £4,678.6m for "emotional impact costs for victims of crime", the bill is still pretty staggering.
The case for a licence would surely be a bit easier to make as well. There are some liberties – like that of driving a car – which are not an automatic right in a well-regulated society because their irresponsible exercise would involve unacceptable costs for others. And just as selfish and reckless driving eventually results in a suspension of your licence to drive, there might be an argument for saying that selfish and dangerous drinking should result in suspension of a licence to purchase alcohol.
The system wouldn't be perfect – no legal prohibition is. But if it did nothing else it might at least persuade Britain's binge drinkers to pretend that they are sober when they are out in public.
When cars gave way to pedestrians
There's a fascinating bit of movie footage in Tate Britain's new exhibition about the Camden Town Group which shows Trafalgar Square in 1909. Part of its charm lies in the fact that it shows horse-drawn vehicles sharing the road with early motor cars. But the really captivating thing is that people are in the mix too – walking all over the place as if they have just as much right to the King's Highway. The pedestrians know that nothing will be coming at them at a speed too high to avoid – and in a lot of cases the cars appear to stop for the walkers, rather than the other way round. When did that assumption about priority become extinct, and how can we revive it?
* One of the Sunday newspapers reports that a teacher has invented an untippable chair, the inspiration for his device being classroom injury and disruption from inveterate tipping.
All very well, this, and there are times when I might have been a customer myself, given my own children's apparent inability to stay on all fours, as basic table manners require. But before we get tough on chair-tipping, shouldn't we do a bit more research into the causes of chair-tipping?
It is so powerful and universal an urge (a lot of us remain closet tippers) that I can't help feeling that there must be more to it than mere fidgeting. Why is it so psychologically rewarding to teeter on the edge of falling... and could it be that it serves to aid learning and concentration rather than hinder them?
Given that chair-tipping is the only exercise some children get now, it might be unwise to rule it out without establishing some facts first.