Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's MPs vote for plain cigarette packaging

By Steven Alexander

Smokers in Northern Ireland look set to be buying their cigarettes in plain packs after a key vote to enforce standardised tobacco packaging was passed in the House of Commons.

Anti-smoking groups were "over the moon" yesterday, with Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) saying plain packaging on tobacco products will protect the next generation from taking up the habit.

Although health is normally a devolved matter, the law will apply to Northern Ireland if passed, and the new rules are expected to take effect from May next year.

The regulations will now pass to the House of Lords, where a vote is expected to take place next week.

Westminster had asked the devolved governments to allow it to legislate for them on the matter.

That meant the First and Deputy First Ministers had to sign up to the move, and while Martin McGuinness backed it, Peter Robinson initially held off.

It's understood the DUP leader had concerns about Westminster being handed a free rein to legislate on behalf of the devolved government.

However, an arrangement was agreed as the deadline loomed, allowing Northern Ireland to opt in to Westminster legislation, rather than have to opt out.

While the DUP's Ian Paisley is a vociferous opponent of plain packaging - he said it contributed to the loss of 900 jobs at JTI's Gallaher cigarette factory in Ballymena - the DUP Health Minister Jim Wells backs it.

Like the Conservatives, the DUP split during yesterday's vote, with five voting in favour of the new laws, and Mr Paisley and Sammy Wilson voting against.

The SDLP's Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie also backed the laws.

Ash chief executive Deborah Arnott said: "The Government, and MPs from all parties, are to be congratulated for resisting the bully-boy tactics and misinformation of the tobacco industry and for implementing the most important public health reform of this parliament." Announcing that he was giving consent for Northern Ireland to be included in the proposed legislation, Mr Wells said earlier this year: "Smoking remains the single greatest cause of preventable illness and premature death in Northern Ireland."

He added: "Branding on cigarette packets provides one of the last opportunities for tobacco companies to promote their products."

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