Politicians and health campaigners have accused the government of siding with tobacco giants instead of acting to protect the health of children, after it emerged ministers postponed a decision on the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes.
Labour has pointed the finger at the Tories' election strategist, Lynton Crosby, who has advised David Cameron to concentrate on the core concerns of voters such as the economy and not to get sidetracked by issues like gay marriage.
Shadow public health minister Diane Abbott said Cameron needed to explain what role Crosby played in the latest decision.
"The Tories used to say they were in favour of this policy, that children should be protected. But now, not long after employing Lynton Crosby, a strategist linked to lobbying in the tobacco industry, David Cameron is backing down," she said.
"People will rightly wonder if the Government is breaking its promise, despite the medical evidence and the wishes of British families, in order to please its friends in big business."
But Downing Street has insisted that Crosby was not involved in the decision to put plain packaging on hold and had not lobbied Cameron on the issue.
A Number 10 spokesman said: "the prime minister has never been lobbied by Lynton Crosby on cigarette packaging. The important point to stress on this issue is that Lynton Crosby has had no involvement in the decision.
"He is not employed by the government. He is employed by the Conservative Party as an adviser to the Conservative Party. He doesn't have a pass for Downing Street. He doesn't have a desk at Downing Street. Does he attend meetings at 10 Downing Street? Yes, he does."
Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston also attacked the delay, tweeting: "A day of shame for this government; the only winners big tobacco, big alcohol and big undertakers".
In a series of posts, she criticised the role ofCrosby, referencing the Australian's call for Cameron to 'scrape the barnacles off the boat' - meaning concentrate on the bigger issues at hand.
"What a tragic waste of an opportunity. 'Barnacles scraped off the boat' AKA more lives ruined for political expediency," she wrote.
In the Commons, health minister Anna Soubry dismissed Labour claims that Crosby was involved in the decision as "a complete red herring", insisting health ministers did not discuss the issue with him.
She said the government's position remained unchanged, but she refused to to be drawn on how long ministers would wait before deciding whether to press ahead with the proposal.
"We have to wait to see the evidence as it emerges. I'm afraid it's how long is a piece of string," she said.
Health campaigners also reacted angrily, with Cancer Research UK chief executive Dr Harpal Kumar saying there was "strong evidence" that cigarette packaging did affect the take-up of smoking by children.
"The decision is as much about politics and as much about the profits of the tobacco industry and, frankly, less about the implications for the health of the British public.
"Surely the Government should show a leadership role in protecting the health of future generations. They claim to be very interested in public health. It is time to show that interest," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"The tobacco industry is entirely dependent on recruiting children to take up an addiction that then stays with them for their lives. What we need to do is to stop those children becoming addicted to something that would kill half of the people who use it.
"We have a whole array of academic papers from respected academics from around the world that absolutely demonstrate that packaging does make a difference to children taking up this product, that it does reduce the effectiveness of health warnings, that it does mean that children think some products are safer or higher quality than others which is why they use them.
Dr Penny Wood, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation, it was "bewildering that the UK government is still allowing the tobacco industry to target young people by refusing to introduce standardised packaging.
“Cigarette packaging is designed to make a deadly product attractive to young people and create future generations of smokers. This is a fact, revealed by tobacco industry documents, and publicly accepted by a government health minister.
“Over 200,000 young people have started smoking since the government began its consultation on standardised packaging, while more than 100,000 people have died as a result of their habit.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health expressed its “bitter disappointment”.
Conservative Bob Blackman said: “This is not a Party political issue. There is strong support for standardised packaging across every Party in Parliament. Like many of my colleagues, I am convinced that we need to stop the tobacco industry from using its packs to market cigarettes."
Labour Kevin Barron MP added that "if this Government cannot muster the nerve to bring forward legislation on standardised packaging, then Parliament must act on its own. This is a vitally important issue of child health and child protection. There is no excuse for further delay. Only the tobacco industry will benefit, and the next generation of child smokers will pay a heavy price, of disease, addiction and premature death.”
However, Conservative backbencher Mark Field - one of a number of Tory MPs who had opposed the move - welcomed what he said was a "sensible and pragmatic" decision.
"Any decision really must be unequivocally evidence-based. The evidence base has to be absolutely rock solid and reliable and to date it is not," he told the Today programme.
He said that imposing new regulations was counter-productive at a time when the Government should be acting to stimulate the economy and could end up costing the taxpayer large sums of money.
"There are substantial intellectual property rights that are being stripped away by removing brand rights that are going to cost the Exchequer significant sums of money in compensation," he said.
"We have got to be laser-like in our approach towards getting the economy out of recession, getting the deficit down, and this sort of message and regulation such as this really runs counter to our view that we are entirely open for business."