The Government is to fast-track legislation on plain packaging for cigarettes before the General Election, it emerged last night (January 21). The announcement comes after years of uncertainty, delay and conflicting claims about the success of an Australian scheme.
A law introducing plain cigarette packaging in England and Wales could now come into force as soon as 2016 after ministers said MPs would be asked to vote on the plan before May’s general election.
It follows a series of public consultations on the issue, which doctors and health campaigners would save thousands of lives.
Public Health Minister Jane Ellison told MPs yesterday that 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 it wins power and it seems that other parties, including the SNP, LibDems and Greens would support them, with only UKIP – with just two MPs currently – would vote agains the move.
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.
“This government is completely committed to protecting children from the harm that tobacco causes.”
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.
“We need to keep up our efforts on tobacco control and standardised packaging is an important part of that,” she said.
The British Lung Foundation and other health campaigners said plain packaging would reduce the appeal of cigarettes to young people.
But Simon Clark, from the pro-smoking lobbying group Forest, plain packaging, which was introduced in Australia two years ago, had had “no discernible impact” on smoking there. He 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”.
And the introduction of plain packaging has been criticised by many in the wholesale and retail trades as creating extra work, causing chaos and playing into the hands of the illicit trade (see Wholesale News, January 2015, page 8).
If passed, the legislation would apply only to England. Ms Ellison said she hoped devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would follow suit.
The Welsh government has confirmed that the decision by MPs would also apply in Wales – the assembly voted to accept any Westminster legislation on the issue in January 2014.