Cigarettes could be sold only in plain packets after a government U-turn on a major public health policy that previously appeared to have been dropped.
In a surprise move the coalition is set to give ministers the power to introduce the policy, although actual implementation will be subject to an evidence review.
The latest volte face came after a cross party group of peers tabled amendments to the children and families bill that would have introduced standardised packaging.
The group, led by Lord Faulkner, were confident of winning the vote in the Lords since they had prestigious medical support in the Lords for the measure.
The evidence review, which will be led by Sir Cyril Chantler, a distinguished doctor, academic and NHS administrator, will report by the end of March.
Subject to its findings, plain packaging could be in force before the 2015 general election.
The move on cigarette packaging is the third time in a week that ministers have sought to distance themselves from big business. On Monday the government ended years of resistance and agreed to a cap on payday loans, and in the past few days has also agreed to stricter rules on the behaviour of banks.
Medical organisations, public health experts and anti-smoking campaigners have been lobbying the government for several years to ensure that cigarette packets are stripped of their colourful packaging, which research shows helps encourage children to start smoking.
Sources stressed that the evidence review was needed to help minimise the threat of legal action by the tobacco industry against subsequent implementation of the policy.
In July the health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that ministers had decided to hold off introducing plain, or standardised, packaging until the evidence from Australia, which last December became the first country to take such action, had been evaluated. That was widely seen as ministers jettisoning the policy, despite strong public backing among supporters of all three main parties.
The cross-party amendment had been tabled by Faulkner, a Labour peer, Lady Tyler, a Lib Dem, Lady Finlay a cross-bencher and Lord McColl, a Tory.
Faulkner said: “Tobacco packaging is the last way in which the tobacco industry can advertise and market its lethal products; we have now stopped all conventional advertising and the retail display ban will come into in full effect in 2015.
The industry likes to pretend that packaging is not advertising, but in fact it is very carefully designed to appeal to its target markets.”
But other insiders say that opposition to the move, which tobacco companies fear could seriously affect sales, had faded away and that David Cameron – who in July was accused of putting the interests of big business ahead of those of people’s health – was not opposed to it.
It is understood that Downing Street’s opposition to the measure started to fade as it saw the extent to which bad publicity was causing political damage, as well as undermining its claims to be concerned with public health.
Well-placed sources said it was not 100% certain that plain packaging would definitely come into force as a result of the primary legislation the government now plans, but that there was “a momentum to do it”.
The coalition’s amendment is not simply a ploy to head off a likely defeat for ministers when the existing amendment is voted on in early to mid-December, sources insisted.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, welcomed the move. “When the government said it wasn’t ready to make a decision on standardised packaging of cigarettes the tobacco industry thought it had killed it stone dead. The government is to be congratulated for listening to parliamentarians from across the political spectrum in both the Commons and the Lords, and making the right decision, ignoring the industry and going ahead,” she said.
Alex Salmond’s Scottish government plans to introduce plain packaging in 2014-15, while the Republic of Ireland has also begun the process of also following Australia’s lead.
Labour demanded that ministers push ahead with the policy without delay. “We need immediate legislation for standard cigarette packaging, not another review. The government needs to stand up to the tobacco industry’s vested interests”, said Luciana Berger, the shadow public health minister.
“The evidence to support standardised packaging is clear. The consensus is overwhelming. We don’t need any further delay while 570 children are lighting up for the first time every day,” she added.
Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: “This could potentially be a very disappointing U-turn by the government.
“Plain packaging will have a negligible impact on health, will boost the black market, and do enormous harm to small businesses.
“In the words of David Cameron, let’s treat adults like adults and give them more responsibility over their own lives.
“It’s about time the government looked towards education rather than even heavier regulation of a legal product enjoyed by millions of ordinary consumers.”
- None Found