The UK government has said it is “certainly minded” to oblige cigarettes to be sold in plain packages without branding but did not give a firm date for doing so.
Jane Ellison, public health minister, said she was likely to accept the recommendations of Sir Cyril Chantler, who backed the introduction of plain packaging in an independent report on the policy published on Thursday.
It would be part of wider action around tobacco and public health, she told the House of Commons, and could be introduced after another “short consultation”.
Ms Ellison said she expected to make a final decision in the summer. Her words were met with shouts of “shame, shame” from libertarian Tory MPs on the green benches behind her who oppose the policy.
Luciana Berger, shadow health minister, asked why there would be “yet another consultation”, suggesting the coalition had caved in to vested interests. “There is no excuse for further delay,” she told the chamber.
Some 70,000 children had taken up smoking since the government first began an earlier consultation on the matter, she said.
The move will be opposed by some of the world’s largest tobacco companies, which have made clear that they will oppose the move in the courts, if necessary.
JTI, which owns Benson & Hedges, said that plain packaging would be “unlawful”. It also pointed out that it spent £9.4bn on rival tobacco group Gallagher in 2007, adding: “The Chantler report does not and could not justify the deprivation of assets that are worth billions of pounds.”
British American Tobacco, the world’s second-largest tobacco company by market share, has made clear that it would consider legal action against the government if it mandated plain packaging.
The obligation to use plain packaging is likely to be more problematic for BAT’s rival Imperial Tobacco, which generates a fifth of its earnings from the UK.
Global tobacco companies are facing increasingly strict regulation of their products globally. The EU recently introduced a plethora of regulations aimed at curbing smoking rates, ranging from larger health warnings on packets to banning menthol-flavoured cigarettes from 2022.
Big tobacco companies have claimed that the introduction of plain packaging would lead to an increase in illicit, non-duty paid tobacco.
Gerald Howarth, a rightwing former Tory minister, said the move was “not a Conservative measure”. He added: “It is an example of the nanny state.”
The Treasury was already losing £3bn a year of revenue from illicit packs, which made up 13 per cent of the market, he said. “If the Australian experience is anything to go by, that number is likely to rocket.”
Tobacco companies claim that smuggling in Australia increased after plain packaging was introduced, but health campaigners argue this is not the case.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP, said Sir Cyril had admitted that the effects of the policy in Australia – where plain packaging was introduced more than a year ago – were still speculative.
He asked: “As the government is taking away a freedom from the British people, should it be more sure of its grounds?”
Health campaigners welcomed the move. Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “We believe that Sir Cyril is absolutely right in identifying that standardised packaging will help discourage children from taking up smoking.”
She added: “We now look to the government to take heed of Sir Cyril’s review and ensure that legislation on ‘plain’ standardised packaging is implemented at the soonest possible [opportunity].”