Cigarettes are set to be sold in plain packets in England and Wales following the publication of evidence on the health benefits of unbranded packaging.
Health Minister Jane Ellison told the Commons today that she was "minded" to introduce new regulations after the Sir Cyril Chantler review concluded that standardised packaging would contribute to a "modest but important reduction" in smoking rates. Her announcement was met with cries of "shame" from several of her own Tory colleagues.
She said she would be introducing draft regulations "so it is crystal clear what we intend" and would announce the details shortly although a final consultation would take place. The Government postponed a decision over plain packaging last summer but a political storm soon erupted after critics argued it was David Cameron's chief strategist Lynton Crosby and his links to big tobacco that was influencing policy. This triggered the Chantler Review.
Ms Ellison said: "Smoking kills nearly 80,000 people each year in England alone and our cancer outcomes stubbornly lag behind much of Europe. Quite apart from the enormous pressure this creates on the NHS, it is a cruel waste of human potential. As a nation therefore we should consider every effective measure we can to stop children taking up smoking in the first place."
Conservative backbencher Sir Gerald Howarth accused his own Government of pursuing a "nanny state". He said: "I do not believe that this is a Conservative measure, it is an example of the nanny state."
Sir Gerald said that 13 per cent of packs sold are illicit, denying the Treasury £3 billion and warned that standardised packaging could result in the number of smuggled tobacco to "rocket".
Sir Cyril himself said the evidence that plain packaging would improve public health was "modest and had its limitations" but added: "However, I am satisfied that there is enough evidence to say that standardised packaging is very likely to contribute to a modest but important reduction in smoking."
Labour accused the Government of kicking the issue "into the long grass" by embarking on a further consultation. Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger said the review's conclusions echoed those of previous consultations and that "an overwhelming body of evidence in favour of standardised packaging" meant there was "no excuse for further delay".
Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's Chief Executive, said the Government's draft regulations should be introduced "as quickly as possible".
The consultation will apply to England and Wales, while Northern Ireland has indicated it will follow suit and Scotland already has plans to introduce plain packaging, meaning the UK could become the first place in Europe to make this step. Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging in 2012.