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Plain packages 'a u-turn on u-turn'

David Cameron has been accused of a humiliating u-turn after ministers dramatically revived the prospect of mandatory plain packaging for cigarettes before the next general election.

Public Health Minister Jane Ellison announced that the eminent paediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler has been asked to carry out a rapid review of the evidence, which will be completed by March.

At the same time, changes will be made to the Children and Families Bill currently going through Parliament so that a ban on branded cigarette packets can be imposed "without delay" if the review concludes it is the right course.

The move was warmly welcomed by health campaigners but the tobacco companies said a ban would have not impact on legal smoking levels and would simply lead to an increase in smuggling and counterfeit products.

In the Commons, Ms Ellison said the Government had ordered the review in response to evidence emerging from Australia which last year became the first country to introduce plain packaging.

But for Labour, shadow health minister Luciana Berger said ministers had been forced to act by the prospect of a "humiliating" defeat in the House of Lords on an amendment to the Children and Families Bill tabled by a cross-party group of peers.

"Only a Government as shambolic as this one could now be u-turning on a u-turn. The minister says we need another review but the Government have already had a review and the evidence is clear for all to see," she said.

"Standardised packaging makes cigarettes less attractive to young people. We should be legislating now, not delaying."

Ms Ellison insisted that the Government had made clear last July that it was simply taking a "pause", following a public consultation in 2012, to consider the evidence from Australia.

At the time the announcement was widely seen as killing off any prospect of legislation before the election in 2015, with critics blaming the Tories' controversial election strategist, Lynton Crosby.

There was an outcry when it later emerged that his firm, CrosbyTextor had been advising Philip Morris Ltd as it lobbied the Government against plain packaging.

Ms Ellison said that there would be no new public consultation and that Sir Cyril's review would have access to the submissions made in the course of last year's consultation.

"We will introduce standardised tobacco packaging if, following the review and consideration of the wider issues raised, we are satisfied there are sufficient grounds to proceed," she said.

"We have to do this in a measured step-by-step way to make sure that when and if a decision is made it is robust and will withdraw all the inevitable challenges that might come its way."

However there was anger among some Conservative MPs who accused the Government of caving in to the "nanny state brigade".

Tory backbencher Philip Davies said: "What we expect from Conservative ministers, who believe in individual freedom and individual responsibility, is to stand up to the health zealots and nanny state brigade who would ban everything and have everything in plain packaging if they could do so."

Welcoming the Government announcement, Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said there was "no question" that imposition of plain packaging would save thousands of lives in future.

"Stopping cigarettes being marketed to children as a glamorous and desirable accessory is one of the greatest gifts we can give the next generation," he said.

Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: "This is an early Christmas present for all of the campaigners that have been working tirelessly to save young lives.

"Introducing standardised packs could prevent a generation of young people starting a deadly and highly addictive habit."

British American Tobacco said the evidence from Australia showed that the "experiment" with plain packaging had failed.

"There has been no impact on legal tobacco volumes in Australia and the steady decline in tobacco consumption that Australia had experienced in recent years has actually eased, not increased, since the introduction of plain packaging," the company said in a statement.

"Instead, the evidence shows that the introduction of plain packaging of tobacco products has coincided with an increase in illicit trade."

Mark Littlewood, director general of the free market Institute of Economic Affairs, said p lain packaging would have a "negligible" impact on health, while boosting the black market, and causing 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," he said.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman denied the Government had performed another U-turn.

Asked why the Government changed its mind, he told a regular Westminster briefing: "I don't accept the premise of the question for the reasons Jane Ellison has been setting out in Parliament and in the media this morning.

"We said in the summer that we would be keeping this policy under review and would look at any emerging evidence."

Asked when Mr Crosby was told about the decision, he replied: "That question is irrelevant."

The spokesman said he did not accept that Mr Cameron had dithered over the decision.

He added: "The PM's view is that the Government is doing the right thing in asking independent experts to undertake this review by March so that's what we are doing, it's the right thing to do and obviously we should not try and pre-empt the outcome of that review."

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), which campaigns about the harmful effects of tobacco, said: " Everyone who cares about the health of children and about reducing the toll of deaths and disease caused by smoking should welcome this announcement.

"The Government deserves credit for listening to public health experts and proceeding with legislation. We are absolutely delighted."

But Angela Harbutt, campaigns manager at the smokers' group Forest, said the decision to commission a new review was "premature".

A "huge majority" of the 700,000 people who took part in a public consultation in 2012 opposed standardised packaging, said Ms Harbutt.

She said: "Fifteen months later, the Government seems to be ignoring the outcome of that consultation despite the fact that very little has changed in the intervening period.

"Although Australia introduced plain packaging 12 months ago, it's far too early to say what the long-term impact will be. Recent reports, however, suggest that smoking prevalence has remained the same while illicit trade has gone up. In contrast, there is no evidence that plain packaging has had any impact on youth smoking rates."

Cigarette company British American Tobacco (BAT) - maker of brands including Benson & Hedges and Dunhill - said the Australian experiment had "failed".

In a statement, BAT said: "The simple fact is that there has been no impact on legal tobacco volumes in Australia and the steady decline in tobacco consumption that Australia had experienced in recent years has actually eased, not increased, since the introduction of plain packaging.

"Instead, the evidence shows that the introduction of plain packaging of tobacco products has coincided with an increase in illicit trade. As a result, not only have the public health objectives originally stated by the supporters of plain packaging in Australia clearly not been achieved, but criminals selling black market tobacco have increased their profits."

UK Independence Party deputy leader Paul Nuttall said: "David Cameron's plan for plain packaging is nothing more than a bid to cover up the political wheeler-dealing of his spin-doctor Lynton Crosby.

"He is scandalously auctioning off the freedom and liberty of the British people for his own political ends, cheered on by the Labour Party. Plain packaging will only lead to more bootlegged tobacco, less competition as smaller brands are blocked and no real change in habits."

Cancer Research UK, which has campaigned strongly for unbranded cigarette packaging, welcomed the apparent change of heart from the Government.

Harpal Kumar, the charity's chief executive, said: "Stopping cigarettes being marketed to children as a glamorous and desirable accessory is one of the greatest gifts we can give the next generation.

"Tobacco is a unique product. It is the only consumable that, when used in the way the manufacturer intends, kills half of its users. Allowing marketing practices that promote this is simply wrong - especially when the result is millions of children being lured into an addiction that results in death and chronic health problems.

"This Government's stated intention to bring in standardised packaging of tobacco shows great leadership. If this becomes law next year, there is no question that it will save thousands of lives in the future."

Each year, 100,000 people in the UK die from smoking-related diseases, Cancer Research UK pointed out. It added that more than seven million UK smokers took up the habit before the age of 18, and half of all long-term smokers will be killed by their addiction.

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