Plain packs for tobacco will be the focus of a new government review

The government has announced an independent review of tobacco packaging, just four months after shelving its plans claiming it needed time to assess the impact of plain packs in Australia.

The review will be led by paediatrician Sir Cyril Chantler and will focus on how the policy has worked down under where the law came into force almost exactly a year ago.

The review will be concluded by March, although the government is also looking to draw up enabling legislation that would allow it to move ahead with the policy quickly should the review call for it. If approved, plain packs could be introduced before the 2015 election.

The government was widely criticised in July after announcing a delay to any decision on the issue. It was accused of caving in to the interests of the tobacco industry and opponents sought to link the move to David Cameron’s election strategist Lynton Crosby, whose lobbying firm had worked on behalf of major tobacco manufacturers.

Anti-smoking campaigners claim research conducted in the Australian state of Victoria shows that the move is effective. It found that 81% of smokers using plain packs were more likely to consider quitting.

However tobacco manufacturers maintain there is still no credible evidence to show that plain packaging will work and warn it will fuel the growing illicit trade of smuggled and counterfeit tobacco.

Australia impact

In a recent interview with The Grocer, Japan Tobacco International UK MD Jorge da Motta argued that not only was more time needed to assess the impact in Australia, but that it may not be the best example due to its relative geographical isolation, which made it less vulnerable to the illicit trade.

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“It takes a while – this has only been implemented in Australia since the end of last year and markets do not react that quickly. We must also be careful as Australia may not be the best example to judge the impact of plain packs. It remains a massive island surrounded by thousands of miles of water, with not many close neighbours, unlike the UK,” he said.

“Let’s understand – this is robbery of intellectual property. A lot has been invested over many years involving these brands. The DNA and identification of these brands is the packaging and this is what we use to compete with other manufacturers. It’s a very serious issue with unintended consequences so I think the UK government’s position was a sensible one.”

The move comes just days before European health ministers look set to agree proposals which would insist on larger pictorial health warnings for all tobacco products. These would cover 65% of the front and back of packs; pro-smoking groups had previously branded this as “plain packaging by the back door”.

Meanwhile the Scottish government remains committed to its plans to bring in plain packaging, while Ireland and New Zealand are also considering similar moves.

Read this: UK ‘sleepwalked’ into tobacco directive, says JTI’s da Motta

This story was amended at 15.35 to include more detail on the review.