Andrew Lansley today confirmed that the controversial tobacco display ban is to go ahead, dashing the genuine hopes for a reprieve still harboured by many retailers.

The move completes a remarkable volte-face for a government that describes itself as pro-business, considering both the Tories and their coalition partners came out against a ban when in opposition.

And there’s hardly been a deluge of evidence in the time since they took power to suggest a ban will improve public health.

The delay in implementation provides some comfort for independents, at least. While the postponement for large stores (from October this year to April 2012) is little more than a gesture, the longer delay for smaller shops (until 2015) is more of a fillip, giving c-stores three years with a rare competitive advantage over the multiples.

Those with most to gain from today’s announcement, however, could well be the counterfeiters.

As widely expected, Lansley outlined plans to put cigarettes in plain packaging, in a move that almost seems designed to boost the illegal trade. A consultation will take place before any change is enacted, but as a similar process over the display ban demonstrates, debates involving the all-powerful health lobby tend to go only one way.

Incidentally, the BBC documentary series Panorama this week tested a batch of counterfeit fags made with tobacco shipped in from China. They were found to be 30 times more toxic than a normal cigarette, due to high levels of lead and god knows what else. Aside from that, the main difference between smoking one of the hooky fags and blazing through a pack and a half of legitimate cigarettes in one go was that the Exchequer missed out on at least a fiver in tax.

One doctor on the show described the increasing consumption of illegal cigarettes as a “health timebomb”. But then why defuse a problem if you can simply sweep it under the counter?

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