Plain Cigarette Packet Debate Is Launched
A consultation on whether cigarettes should be sold in plain packets has been launched by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.
The move will start a wider debate which could see all branding stripped from cigarette packets and larger health warnings added instead.
It will investigate whether people believe standardised packaging will have an impact on smoking rates, particularly among young people.
Under the changes, packets could be all the same colour and have a standard font and text for any writing.
Pro-smoking groups have described the plan as "a total farce", and fear it could boost the already sizeable black market for counterfeit or smuggled cigarettes.
But anti-smoking campaigners believe removing all flashy styling will make the habit less appealing, especially to teenagers.
Deborah Arnott from ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) told Sky News: "Plain packs are less attractive to young people.
"They enhance the impact of the health warnings on the packs because there is no branding to fight it and they reduce the ability of the pack to be misleading because unfortunately smokers still think that light-coloured packs are less harmful than dark packs."
A survey for the anti-smoking group found that 62% of people back the idea of plain packets, with 11% against it.
Around ten million adults in Britain smoke, and two thirds started before they were 18.
It claims 100,000 lives in the UK every year and is the main cause of early death, according to the Government.
The treatment of smoking-related illnesses also costs the NHS billions of pounds each year.
Health warnings have already been added to packets, and cigarettes locked behind cabinets in supermarkets to try and cut the number of smokers.
The Tobacco Manufacturers Association has welcomed the debate about the latest government plans but it is defending its right to make brands stand out.
Jaine Chisholm Caunt, the secretary-general of the TMA, said: "There is no reliable evidence that plain packaging will reduce rates of youth smoking.
"Smoking initiation in children is actually linked to a complex range of socio-economic factors including home life, peer pressure and truancy and exclusion from school.
"The focus for Government, and public health policy-makers, should rightly be on reducing youth smoking and therefore on preventing children's access to cigarettes, not on the appearance of the pack."
Mr Lansley said: "Smoking remains one of the most significant challenges to public health. Each year it accounts for over 100,000 deaths in the UK and one in two long-term smokers will die prematurely from a smoking disease.
"That is why the health ministers across the UK have a responsibility to look closely at initiatives that might encourage smokers to quit and stop young people not taking up smoking in the first place."
Australia is currently the only country to have agreed plain packaging.
Laws making packets a dull green with generic fonts and health warnings are due to come into force at the end of the year.
However, they have sparked a series of legal challenges by tobacco companies.
One High Court action this week is expected to hear claims that the branding ban is a violation of the Australian constitution because it will affect the value of the firms' intellectual property.