Government to move ahead with standardised cigarette packets
The government is moving forward with plans to ban branding on cigarette packs, Public Health Minister Jane Ellison told MPs.
She said an independent report found it was "very likely to have a positive impact" on public health and stop children from starting to smoke.
Ms Ellison said she was publishing draft regulations for a final, "short consultation".
Labour accused Ms Ellison of kicking the issue "into the long grass".
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.
Shadow health secretary Luciana Berger called for immediate legislation to ban branding, telling MPs: "There is an overwhelming body of evidence in favour of standardised packaging and there can be no excuse for a further delay."'Vested interests'
She added: "How many more children are going to take up smoking before this government makes a decision?"
Make no mistake, the move to introduce plain packaging is just the latest front in the war against smoking.
Over the past decade, there has been a ban on smoking in public places and moves to restrict displays in shops.
But one of the issues that has been concerning health experts and ministers is the number of people who continue to take up smoking, particularly young people.
More than 200,000 under-16s start in the UK each year - helping ensure a viable market remains for manufacturers once the number of people quitting and dying is taken into account.
In countries like the UK where there is a ban on advertising, the pack remains the last major vehicle for promotion.
Hence the detail and care taken in the design of the packets with their laminated and special print effects, foil decorations and slide openings and bevelled edges.
It should come as no surprise therefore to learn that they have become known as the "silent salesman" and "mobile billboard" within the industry. They are that important.
She accused the government of "caving in to vested interests" on the issue.
Labour claims the Conservative Party favours the tobacco lobby after a series of delays in a decision on whether to move ahead with a branding ban.
The tobacco industry argues standardised packaging would lead to a rise in illegally smuggled cigarettes in Britain and argues that evidence from Australia, which became the first country to bring in standardised packaging in 2011, shows little impact on smoking rates.
Ms Ellison told MPs the latest independent report, by paediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler, has found evidence that the Australian legislation has had a positive impact.
She said about 200,000 children aged between 11 and 15 start smoking in the UK every year - about 600 a day.
She told MPs: "If this rate of smoking by children was reduced even by 2%, for example, it would mean that 4,000 fewer children take up smoking each year.
"Sir Cyril's report makes a compelling case that if standardised packaging were introduced it would be very likely to have a positive impact on public health and that these health benefits would include health benefits for children."'Nanny state'
She added: "We want our nation's children to grow up happy and healthy and free from the heavy burden of diseases that tobacco brings."
End Quote Robert Halfon Conservative MP
"Conservatives believe in freedom and the best way to stop people smoking is through education and not by banning things”
She denied the government was dragging its heels, saying the final legislation had to be "robust" and part of broader efforts to combat smoking and all "stakeholders" had to have their say.
But she said the government's intention was "clear" and she promised changes before the next election in May 2015, although MPs would be given a vote on the proposals before they came into force.
A succession of Conservative backbenchers attacked the plan, saying it was an example of the "nanny state" and that there were enough warnings about the dangers of smoking already.
Robert Halfon, who successfully campaigned for a cut in bingo tax, said: "Conservatives believe in freedom and the best way to stop people smoking is through education and not by banning things."Print workers
He said there would be a "huge impact on small shops and small businesses" if standardised packaging went ahead.
Jacob Rees-Mogg said Sir Cyril's report had found it was too early to draw any any firm conclusions from the Australian legislation and said the findings were "indirect and speculative".
"As the government may be taking away a freedom from the British people oughtn't it to be more certain of its ground?" he asked.
Dame Angela Watkinson said: "Nobody in this country smokes in ignorance and people who do so do it as a deliberate choice."
Labour MP Diana Johnson said Dame Angela had accepted a gift from Japan Tobacco, makers of Benson and Hedges cigarettes. The register of members' interests shows the Hornchurch MP accepted hospitality and two tickets to last year's Chelsea Flower show, worth £1,260.
Conservative MP Sir Paul Beresford, a dentist, backed the ban, telling those protesting against it: "If I could arrange for them to come into an operating theatre to see the damage that oral cancer does to people they might actually change their mind."
Most Labour MPs who spoke supported legislation - but Bradford South MP Gerry Sutcliffe warned about the impact on print workers in his constituency if branding was removed from cigarette packets.
The British Medical Association welcomed the minister's statement but said there should be no further delays to legislation.
Dr Ram Moorthy, deputy chair of the BMA's Board of Science, said: "As doctors we see first-hand every day the devastating effects of tobacco addiction and we call on the government to make a decision quickly and to introduce standardised packaging at the earliest possible opportunity in order to help put an end to a life-long addiction that kills and destroys health."
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: "The Welsh Government has long been a proponent of standardised packaging of tobacco products and we recognise that has the potential to be an important tool in our bid to reduce the harm from tobacco-related illness.
"We are therefore delighted with today's announcement that the UK government will go ahead with standardised packaging. This will also apply to Wales, following a short consultation on draft regulations."