Cigarette package law to be voted on by MPs before election

THE government has said it will press ahead with the introduction of unbranded cigarette packaging in England, asking MPs to vote on legislation before May’s election.

It follows a series of public consultations on the issue.

Public Health Minister Jane Ellison told MPs the move was likely to have a positive impact on public health, particularly for children.

Labour has already pledged to ban images on packets if they win power.

And doctors say the move would save thousands of lives.

The BBC’s health editor Hugh Pym said the changes could come into force as soon as 2016 if Parliament passes legislation before the end of March.

Ms Ellison said all the evidence pointed to the step having a positive impact – although she warned of a potential legal challenge from the cigarette industry which strongly opposes the move.

“We cannot be complacent. We all know the damage smoking does to health,” she said in Parliament.

“This government is completely committed to protecting children from the harm that tobacco causes. That’s why I’m announcing that we will be bringing forward legislation for standardised packaging before the end of this Parliament.”

A review of the public health implications of standardised packaging last year by Sir Cyril Chantler concluded it was very likely their introduction would lead to a modest but important reduction in the uptake and prevalence of smoking.

MPs are now expected to be given a free vote on the issue before Parliament is dissolved ahead of the general election campaign, which begins in April.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, welcomed the move.

“I have reviewed all the evidence, and agree that standardised packaging would be a positive move for public health, particularly the role it could play in helping to prevent the uptake of smoking by children,” she said.

“We have seen smoking rates decline, but smoking remains the single biggest cause of preventable mortality. We need to keep up our efforts on tobacco control and standardised packaging is an important part of that.”   

The British Lung Foundation and other health campaigners said plain packaging would reduce the appeal of cigarettes to young people and “protect them from the deadly consequences of smoking”.

Australia became the first country to ban all images and words – apart from public health warnings – from cigarette packs in December 2012.

Simon Clark, from the pro-smoking lobbying group Forest, said this had had “no discernible impact” on smoking trends in Australia and suggested there was substantial public opposition to the move in the UK.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market think tank, said it was a “gross infringement of the right of companies to use their trademarks and design their own packaging”.

“There is no need to wonder what will happen next. We need only look at Australia where the black market has grown and youth smoking has risen,” said the IEA’s Christopher Snowdon.

If passed, the legislation would apply to England, but Ms Ellison said she hoped that the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would also follow suit.

The Department of Health said the proposed design of the standardised packs had yet to be decided but released some examples of how they may look.

The packets would be dull brown on the outside and white on the inside and, apart from health warnings, the brand or variant name will be the only text allowed.

Shadow health minister Luciana Berger said the change had been a “long time coming” and that standardised packaging would be a vital step in dealing with the “glitzy appeal” of smoking.

“I sincerely hope the government will honour what they said they will do before the general election,” she said.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage tweeted: “Plain packaging is an appalling intrusion into consumer choice and the operation of the free market. Jobs and tax revenue would suffer.”

Further tobacco controls are due to come into force in May 2016, when the European Tobacco Products Directive will require larger picture health warnings on packets and will ban flavourings, including menthol.

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