DAVID Cameron has been accused of another humiliating U-turn after Ministers dramatically revived the prospect of mandatory plain packaging for cigarettes before the next election.
Ministers announced a rapid review of current evidence by March over the move and said changes are being made to legislation in Parliament so a ban on branded packets can be imposed “without delay”.
The move was welcomed by health campaigners but the tobacco giants said a ban would have no impact on legal smoking and lead to an increase in smuggling and counterfeit products.
Public Health Minister Jane Ellison told MPs 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 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.
“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 claimed 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, critics blamed the delay on the Tories’ controversial election strategist, Lynton Crosby. There was an outcry when it later emerged that his firm, Crosby-Textor had been advising tobacco firm Philip Morris Ltd as it lobbied the Government against plain packaging.
Ms Ellison 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 Conservatives who accused the Government of caving in to the “nanny state brigade”.
Shipley Tory MP 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.”
Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said there was “no question” plain packaging would save thousands of lives.
“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: “Introducing standardised packs could prevent a generation of young people starting a deadly and highly addictive habit.”
British American Tobacco said evidence from Australia showed the “experiment” with plain packaging had failed and the decline in tobacco consumption had eased rather than increased.
“Instead, the evidence shows that the introduction of plain packaging of tobacco products has coincided with an increase in illicit trade,” it said.
UK Independence Party deputy leader Paul Nuttall accused Mr Cameron of “scandalously auctioning off the freedom and liberty of the British people for his own political ends”. “Plain packaging will only lead to more bootlegged tobacco, less competition as smaller brands are blocked and no real change in habits,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman denied the Government had performed another U-turn. Asked when Mr Crosby was told about the decision, he replied: “That question is irrelevant.”