The British government will consider whether to force tobacco companies to adopt plain packaging to try to reduce the attraction of smoking, according to a policy document on public health published.
The document also suggested that a ban on the display of tobacco products in shops, introduced by the previous government that lost power in May 2010, was being reconsidered. Major tobacco companies were seeking to overturn the ban through the courts.
"The government will look at whether the plain packaging of tobacco products could be an effective way to reduce the number of young people taking up smoking and to help those who are trying to quit smoking," the policy document said.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said smoking-related illnesses killed 80,000 Britons a year and dissuading people from taking up the habit was a public health priority.
The policy document said the government would need to make sure that there was good evidence to demonstrate that plain packaging would improve public health, and would also examine the competition, trade and legal implications of such a change.
Australia first to go plain
Australia is the first country to go down the route of plain packaging to discourage people from smoking.
Under new legislation scheduled to come into force in Australia in 2012, tobacco companies will have to remove all colour, branding and logos from cigarette packets. That is in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In the United States, in contrast, graphic pictures depicting the negative effects of smoking will be required on all cigarette packages and advertisements as of October 2012.
Diseased lungs, dead bodies, a man on a ventilator, and mothers blowing smoke in their children's faces are among the images US health officials are considering in their effort to revamp tobacco warning labels.
The British policy document, entitled "Healthy Lives, Healthy People," outlines a broad strategy on promoting healthier lifestyles by the government, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
"We are also considering options for the display of tobacco in shops, recognising the need to take action both to reduce tobacco consumption and to reduce burdens on businesses," the document says.
The previous Labour government introduced a ban to force shops to keep cigarette packets under the counter rather than stack them up on display shelves.
Challenging the ban
Britain's three biggest cigarette makers, Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and British American Tobacco, were seeking to challenge the ban through the courts.
Presenting the new policy document to parliament, Lansley was asked by legislators to clarify whether the government would implement the ban. He did not answer and said a separate announcement on tobacco control would be made in due course.
The Labour government's Health Act 2009 requires cigarettes, cigars, pipe and roll-your-own tobacco products to be hidden from view in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from October 2011 in large retailers and from October 2013 in smaller outlets.
(Reuters Health, December 2010)