Northern Ireland to be included in new UK law on plain cigarette packaging
An eleventh-hour compromise has paved the way for Northern Ireland to be included in a new UK law to force cigarette makers to use plain packaging.
A new motion has been devised which would allow Stormont to opt into the new laws if it decided they were acceptable
Campaigners have said that thousands of lives could be lost to cancer if Northern Ireland becomes the only part of the UK not backing legislation introducing plain packaging on cigarettes.
Charity chiefs said unbranded packets would save countless lives by helping to prevent children starting the deadly habit.
The Chest Heart and Stroke Association said next week is the "last chance saloon" to ensure Northern Ireland is included, and have urged the First and deputy First Minister to take action.
In November 2013, Westminster announced that it would introduce an amendment to the Children and Families Bill.
It would give the Secretary of State for Health the power to introduce regulations on standardised packaging. But as it is a devolved matter, Westminster needs consent from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for the amendment. If given, it would then cover the entire UK.
Last year, Health Minister Edwin Poots tabled a legislative consent motion (LCM) which would enable the Assembly to support the legislation change. Concerns were raised at the delay in bringing it before the Assembly.
If the LCM is not passed before the completion of the passage of the Children and Families Bill in the Commons, Northern Ireland would fall behind Great Britain. England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic all support plain tobacco packaging. But it is now understood that a new LCM has been redrafted at the 11th hour, giving the final decision to the ministers in Northern Ireland.
According to a senior government source, the new LCM allows Executive ministers in Northern Ireland to wait for the findings of an independent review by leading paediatrician, Sir Cyril Chantler.
Sir Cyril's review was launched in November, and he will report in March. However, it could still result in Northern Ireland not supporting the change in legislation.
Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson said: "With the health minister in Dublin already well advanced in his preparations to legislate on this issue, it is imperative that Assembly Health Minister Edwin Poots bring forward similar legislation so that there will be uniform regulations."
Andrew Dougal, chief executive of the NI Chest, Heart and Stroke Association, added: "It has to be debated by Tuesday – that is last-chance saloon, otherwise it doesn't meet the Westminster deadline."
Charities say that as Northern Ireland has a higher smoking rate than Great Britain (24% to 20%), it could have an impact on cancer rates.
In December 2012, Australia became the first nation to ban logos and other advertising on cigarette packs. The Republic of Ireland will be the first country in Europe to require cigarettes to be sold in plain packs.
In November 2013 the UK government announced it would introduce an amendment to the Children and Families Bill.