Our sense of smell relies on sensitive, selective atomic-scale processes that occur when a scent molecule meets specific receptors in the nose. The physical mechanisms of detection are unclear: odorant shape and size are important, but experiment shows them insufficient. One novel proposal suggests receptors are actuated by inelastic electron tunneling from a donor to an acceptor mediated by the odorant, and provides critical discrimination. We test the physical viability of this mechanism using a simple but general model. With parameter values appropriate for biomolecular systems, we find the proposal consistent both with the underlying physics and with observed features of smell. This mechanism suggests a distinct paradigm for selective molecular interactions at receptors (the swipe card model): recognition and actuation involve size and shape, but also exploit other processes.