The government is set to launch an independent review of plain packaging for tobacco products.
The surprise announcement could result in plain packaging on cigarettes and other tobacco products by 2015.
Set to be completed by the end of March 2014, the evidence review will be led by paediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler.
The government has always maintained it had an “open mind” on plain packaging and that it would wait to examine results from Australia, which introduced plain packaging last December.
Announcing the review, health minister Jane Ellison said: “We intend to reach a decision on standardised tobacco packaging once Sir Cyril has made his report. The government will introduce standardised tobacco packaging if, following the review and consideration of the wider issues raised by this policy, we are satisfied that there are sufficient grounds to proceed, including public health benefit.
“The government also intends to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the Children and Families Bill, which is currently being considered in the House of Lords, to table an amendment to take enabling powers now which would allow regulations to be made to introduce standardised tobacco packaging later, if it is decided to proceed with this policy,” she added.
The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) urged the government to consider the implications for retailers.
“Plain tobacco packaging would bring costs and operational problems for retailers,” chief executive James Lowman said. “In Australia, where a ban has already been introduced, nine out of ten small retailers have experienced an increase in the time taken to serve customers and almost half incurred additional training costs since the introduction of the legislation.”
Plain packaging would “add expense, delay and confusion to the distribution chain without achieving any reduction in youth smoking levels”, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) added, while calling for an exemption for outer packaging.
FWD chief executive James Bielby said: “Clear branding of products is absolutely vital in a large-scale distribution operation, and tobacco traders need to be able to select the products their customers demand. Outer packaging cannot influence purchase as consumers do not see it.”