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The government has shelved proposals to put tobacco in plain packaging

Tobacco groups and retailers have welcomed the government’s decision to shelve plans to force tobacco into plain packs.

The Department of Health today confirmed it intends to defer any decision until after it has had time to assess the impact plain packs have had in Australia, so far the only major country to introduce the measure.

Australia introduced plain packs in December and since then governments in both New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland have stated their intentions to follow suit.

“In light of the differing views, we have decided to wait until the emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured, and then we will make a decision in England”

Jeremy Hunt

The DH said it had received more than 668,000 responses to its consultation on the issue, with opinions highly polarised on both sides of the debate. It also said there was widespread use of campaigns and petitions to drum up support for the differing points of view.

Speculation had been mounting that the government was planning to delay its decision after the policy was omitted from the Queen’s Speech in May.

“The UK is known the world over for its comprehensive, evidence-based tobacco control strategy, and we are continually driving down smoking rates through our range of actions,” said health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

“Obviously we take very seriously the potential for standardised packaging to reduce smoking rates, but in light of the differing views, we have decided to wait until the emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured, and then we will make a decision in England.”

The government would continue to push its current plans to reduce smoking by ending the display of tobacco in all shops, running national behaviour change campaigns, and supporting local authorities to provide effective stop smoking services.

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Smokers’ group Forest, which ran the Hands Off Our Packs campaign, said it was delighted by the move.

“Ministers have listened to ordinary people. This is good news for those who believe in consumer freedom and are opposed to excessive legislation,” said campaigner Angela Harbutt.

National Federation of Retail Newsagents national president Colin Fletcher said: “Today’s announcement by health secretary Jeremy Hunt is a victory for common sense. As responsible retailers, NFRN members have long supported government aims to improve public health by reducing smoking levels among minors, but it has long been our belief that standardised packaging is not the right way to go about this.”

However the move has been attacked by both the opposition and the health lobby.

Labour has accused the government of being swayed by the tobacco industry and called for an explanation of its “broken promises”.

Cancer UK chief executive Dr Harpal Kumar said: “The decision is as much about politics and as much about the profits of the tobacco industry and, frankly, less about the implications for the health of the British public.”