Cigarette plain packs move closer
Cigarettes could be sold in plain packs after ministers said they were "minded" to introduce the measure.
The Department of Health is to launch a consultation on whether tobacco products should be sold in standardised packaging after a review concluded the initiative could contribute to a "modest but important reduction" in smoking rates.
The Sir Cyril Chantler review concluded that the measure, which would see cigarettes and other tobacco products put in drab and purposefully unattractive packaging, would contribute to a reduction in the prevalence of smoking.
He also suggested that branded packs contribute to an increase in tobacco consumption.
Health experts have long campaigned for the measure to be introduced, saying that brightly coloured packages are the last marketing ploy tobacco companies use to lure people to their products.
But smoking groups claimed that stripping cigarette packets of branding would lead to an increase in the illicit trade of tobacco products and job losses.
Public health minister Jane Ellison said: "Smoking kills nearly 80,000 people each year in England alone and our cancer outcomes stubbornly lag behind much of Europe. Quite apart from the enormous pressure this creates on the NHS, it is a cruel waste of human potential.
"Yet we know that the vast majority of smokers want to quit and even more tragically we also know that two-thirds of smokers become addicted before they are 18. As a nation therefore we should consider every effective measure we can to stop children taking up smoking in the first place.
"I would like to thank Sir Cyril and his team for their work and for their thorough analysis of the evidence on standardised packaging."
Sir Cyril said he was "not convinced" by arguments that standardised packaging would lead to an increase in illicit trade.
He said UK enforcement agencies have already shown they can keep illegal products to low levels.
The former paediatrician said: "Research cannot prove conclusively that a single measure like standardised packaging of tobacco products will reduce smoking and it is not possible to carry out a controlled trial.
"However, I am satisfied that there is enough evidence to say that standardised packaging is very likely to contribute to a modest but important reduction in smoking. This effect will be optimised if is part of a wider tobacco control strategy.
"The evidence base is modest and it has its limitations, but it points in a single direction, and I am not aware of any evidence pointing the other way.
"Given the dangers of smoking, the suffering that it causes, the highly addictive nature of nicotine, the fact that most smokers become addicted when they are children or young adults, and the overall cost to society, the importance of such a reduction should not be underestimated."
Sir Cyril said he hopes the consultation is launched "as quickly as possible".
The former smoker was tasked with reviewing the public health evidence for standardised tobacco packaging last year.
The issue has been focus of much debate in the two years since the Government launched an initial four-month consultation on plans to introduce mandatory plain packaging for tobacco products.
British ministers were accused of "dithering" after the consultation, with charities saying that hundreds of British children took up smoking every day while officials considered the findings.
In December 2012, Australia became the first country in the world to put all tobacco products in standardised packs. The law banned the use of logos, brand imagery, symbols, other images, colours and promotional text. Cigarettes and other tobacco products are now sold in packets which portray a range of gruesome images including dying cancer sufferers, diseased feet and ill babies.
It was widely expected that a similar measure would be introduced in the Queen's Speech last year but the plans were shelved at the last minute and officials were accused of bowing to pressure from big tobacco companies.
In July health officials announced the proposal would be postponed until ministers had a chance to assess its impact in Australia.
Then in November officials commissioned Sir Cyril to review the evidence.
At the same time, changes were made to the Children and Families Bill so the ban can be implemented quickly if ministers decide to proceed.
During a press conference Sir Cyril was asked about reports suggesting that the announcement was timed to happen just before Culture Secretary Maria Miller's apology to the House of Commons over her expenses.
Sir Cyril said he found out that the announcement was going to happen at 5pm yesterday afternoon. He said: "I always said that I wanted to report within 48 hours of providing it to ministers and I am within 48 hours. I presented to ministers yesterday, the department was sent it the day before."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said the final consultation would be run so "any further views" can be considered.
It would also mean that people can see the detail of draft regulations and what standardised packaging would mean in practice, she said.
Sir Cyril said that standardised packs in Britain would look "similar" to those used in Australia.
The spokeswoman said the Department aims to publish the consultation document by the end of April.
Chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies said: "Smoking is the greatest preventable cause of death in the UK. One in two smokers die as a direct result of smoking and it can lead to many serious illnesses, such as cancer and coronary heart disease, that can result in disability, pain and distress for individuals and communities.
"Already in this country we have made considerable progress in reducing the prevalence of smoking and the consequent burden of disease but there is more to be done - it is particularly important that we continue to focus on discouraging children and young adults from taking up smoking.
"This review only reinforces my beliefs of the public health gains to be achieved from standardised packaging."
Asked whether the Prime Minister intends to get legislation on to the statute book by the time of the May 2015 general election, David Cameron's official spokesman said: "The first thing to do is publish the draft regulations. We do have to consult on those in detail, partly to deal with the risk of future charges.
"Subject to that, we will certainly consider whether that is possible."
He added: "The Prime Minister is minded to go ahead with this, subject to the consultation on detailed regulations."