13/04/2012 03:19 BST | Updated 13/04/2012 03:30 BST

Cigarette Packets Could Be Stripped Of Branding, Andrew Lansley Says

The government will pave the way for cigarette packets to be stripped of all branding, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has said.

The coalition's public consultation on plain packaging will launch on Monday, with Lansley telling The Times attractive packaging enticed smokers.

He said he was "open minded" about the consultation, but added: "We don't work in partnership with the tobacco companies because we are trying to arrive at a point where they have no business in this country."

Such a ban would be the latest attack on smoking after previous governments banned tobacco companies describing certain brands of cigarettes as "lights", outlawed sponsorship deals and forced firms to publish on packets graphic, gruesome images of cancerous organs and stark warnings about the potential health effects of lighting up.

Chancellor George Osborne announced in last month's Budget that the price of a packet of 20 cigarettes would rise by 37p to an average of £7.36.

Lansley's latest comments came a week after a ban on tobacco promotion in England came into force.

New laws mean all large shops and supermarkets must cover up cigarettes and hide tobacco products from public view.

The Department of Health said the move was in response to evidence that cigarette displays in shops can encourage young people to take up the habit.

More than 300,000 children under 16 try smoking each year and 5% of children aged 11 to 15 are regular smokers, according to its figures.

Meanwhile 39% of smokers say that they were smoking regularly before the age of 16.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of campaigning charity Action on Smoking and Health, said: "The consultation is just the first step, putting us in pole position to be the first European nation to put tobacco in plain, standardised packs.

"Now that cigarette advertising, promotion and sponsorship and tobacco displays have all been banned this is the obvious next step if the Government truly wants to make smoking history.

"Cigarettes are not like sweets or toys and should not be sold in fancy colourful packaging which make them appealing to children.

"Cigarettes are full of toxins and cause fatal diseases: plain, standardised packaging makes this explicit."

Pro-smoking group Forest, the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco, has launched a Hands Off Our Packs (Hoops) campaign.

Director Simon Clark has described plain packaging as "the persecution of a minority lifestyle choice".

He said: "Plain packaging is yet another attack on retailers and adult consumers.

"People are sick of being nannied by government.

"Britain needs to be protected from excessive regulation, not controlled by more and more legislation."

Lansley, who said there was "no harmless level of smoking", dismissed claims that smoking could become more attractive to young people if it was hidden and insisted the key issue was about "shifting the culture".

He said the ban on displaying cigarettes was part of a move to ensure "we no longer see smoking as a part of life".

Last year, Australia approved laws to introduce plain packaging to reduce the attractions of smoking, but three global tobacco giants launched lawsuits saying the rules infringed trademark rights.

Three of the world's four largest tobacco groups, Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco are challenging the new law in the High Court.

The British Heart Foundation's director of policy and communications, Betty McBride, said: "Tobacco advertising is rightly banned in the UK, yet current glitzy packaging clearly still advertises tobacco on the cigarette box.

"It's an absurd loophole the tobacco industry takes full advantage of to lure in new young smokers.

"We must close if we really want to protect younger generations from taking up this fatal habit."