Plans to hold a pre-election Commons vote on enforcing standardised tobacco packaging offer the chance of a "momentous step" in creating a smoke-free generation in Britain, health groups have said. In an unusual move, Public Health Minister Jane Ellison revealed in a Commons adjournment debate that the Government would table regulations to enforce standardised packaging in England by May 2016.
The measures are expected to pass despite Conservative objections after MPs were granted a free vote on the issue. Further regulations banning smoking in private cars carrying children will be enforced from October this year if signed off by Parliament.
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: "The benefits of standardised packaging were comprehensively laid out, and the alleged risks comprehensively dismissed, in last year's independent review commissioned by the Government.
"Doing so would mark a huge victory for public health, and a momentous step towards saving some of the 200,000 young people who currently take up this deadly habit each year." Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said: "We applaud the Government for taking this big step towards getting plain, standardised cigarette packs on the shelves and protecting children from tobacco marketing.
"Two-thirds of smokers start before the age 18, beginning an addiction which will kill half of them if they become long-term smokers. By stripping cigarette packs of their marketing features, we can reduce the number of young people lured into an addiction, the products of which are death and disease."
But the move was immediately criticised by business groups. Christopher Snowdon, director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: "This is a gross infringement of the right of companies to use their trademarks and design their own packaging.
"There is no need to wonder what will happen next - we need only look at Australia ,where the black market has grown and youth smoking has risen. To pursue this grandstanding policy in spite of the Australian experience is sheer negligence."
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "This legislation could end up being remembered as a Smugglers' Charter."
Ms Ellison told MPs: "This Government is completely committed to protecting children from the harm that tobacco causes. That's why I'm announcing today that we will be bringing forward legislation for standardised packaging before the end of this Parliament. I would like to reassure the House I will provide further details about the introduction of this policy in due course."
On smoking in private cars carrying children, Ms Ellison added: "The regulations have been considered by the scrutiny committees and I expect we will have a date for the debate soon. It is not my desire people should be fined as a result of ignorance and I want to make sure as many people as possible are aware of the new policy."
The Public Health Minister added: "Legislation or even new laws on packaging will not solve all of the problems relating to tobacco. We will bring regulations before Parliament in this Parliament and, should Parliament support this measure, we will be bringing the prospect of this country's first smoke-free generation one decisive step closer."
Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies said: "I have reviewed all the evidence, and agree that standardised packaging would be a positive move for public health, particularly the role it could play in helping to prevent the uptake of smoking by children.
"We have seen smoking rates decline, but smoking remains the single biggest cause of preventable mortality ... we need to keep up our efforts on tobacco control and standardised packaging is an important part of that."
Shadow public health minister Luciana Berger said: "We welcome the announcement that the Government will finally bring forward regulations on standardised packaging of tobacco. However, it was almost a year ago that MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of this measure and the delay is inexcusable."
Senior Conservative MP Dame Angela Watkinson highlighted the dissent likely to feature on the Tory benches when the motion is brought to the Commons. Speaking in the same adjournment debate where Ms Ellison announced the vote, Dame Angela said: "I'm a life-long non-smoker. That is my choice and it's a choice that is open to everybody. There can't be anyone in this country, young or old, who does not know about the health risks of tobacco. Nobody smokes in ignorance."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said there were not yet specific dates for debates and votes on the regulations and she said the adjournment debate was simply an opportune moment to announce the policy once the subject had been set. The regulations only apply in England and devolved administrations will need to introduce parallel rules to make them operate nationwide.
The standardised packaging will specify mandatory colours for retail packaging, insisting they must be dull brown outside and white inside. Only specific text, such as a brand or variant name, will be allowed subject to particular requirement. Health warnings and marks to prevent counterfeits will continue to be allowed.
The European Tobacco Products Directive will bring in a wider range of measures, including larger picture health warnings and a ban on flavourings.