Senior doctors will tomorrow condemn the Government's decision to delay its plans to force cigarettes to be sold in plain packets.
They warn that teenagers are more likely to start smoking – and develop a life-long habit – if tobacco continues to be heavily branded with colourful and attractive packaging.
Health ministers have been debating whether to follow the lead of Australia, where for the last six months cigarettes have been sold in dull green packets with prominent health warnings.
They were considering including the packaging move in the Queen’s Speech legislative programme to be set out next Wednesday.
But Whitehall sources confirmed the plan was being put on hold, explaining that ministers needed more time to see whether smoking levels had fallen in Australia.
In a letter to The Independent, Sir Richard Thompson, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, and Dr Hilary Cass, the president of Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, appealed for a rethink by Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary.
They praised the Australian government’s “brave and ground-breaking initiative” and said it should be “echoed around the world, as children and young adults everywhere deserve the same protection”.
They said: “Evidence shows that plain packaging is less attractive to young people. Health warnings are prominent and effective and remove any misconception that some brands are ‘safer’ than others. As a result, plain packaging of cigarettes is likely to reduce smoking uptake amongst children and young people.”
The letter was also signed by Dr Leslie Bolitho, the president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
It is understood ministers baulked at the packaging move – which is also set to come into force in Scotland – because it would be a distraction from their priorities of the economy, welfare reform and immigration.
But Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health, said: “Smoking remains the major preventable cause of death and disability and measures to reduce smoking prevalence are popular and effective. Over 60 per cent of the public support standard packaging for cigarette packs.”
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “The time has surely now come for the UK Government to stop dithering on this issue and follow the example set by their Scottish counterparts. Using expensively-designed packaging to sell cigarettes to young people is wrong and should be stopped.”
The Department of Health (DoH), which completed a consultation exercise on the proposed move last summer, said that it had an open mind on the issue of packaging.
About 100,000 people die in Britain each year through smoking-related conditions such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Despite decades of health warnings and legislation controlling tobacco promotion and use, about ten million Britons still smoke. Two-thirds of them took up the habit before they reached the age of 18.
Research by the University of Stirling for the DoH concluded that “plain pack colours have negative connotations, weaken attachment to brands, project a less desirable smoker identity, and expose the reality of smoking”. Plain packaging was particularly unappealing to teenagers and young adults, it found.