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MPs set to back plain packets for cigarettes

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 the UK, health groups have said.

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.

Stormont could follow suit if the Assembly agreed.

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."

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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."

The move has been criticised by business groups. Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: "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."

Last June, the Republic of Ireland became the first country in Europe to ban branded tobacco.

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