The UK government is considering forcing tobacco companies to package their cigarettes in plain brown wrappers in a bid to de-glamourise smoking and stop young people taking up the habit.
The UK health secretary, Andrew Lansley, is investigating the viability of introducing what would be one of the most radical public health measures ever implemented in the UK.
Senior doctors welcomed the potential ban on colours and logos on packets and said it could prove as effective as the 2007 public smoking ban. But ministers are likely to face a legal challenge if they go ahead.
“We have to try new approaches and take decisions to benefit the population. That’s why I want to look at the idea of plain packaging,” said Lansley. “The evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers, so it makes sense to consider having less attractive packaging.”
Lansley stressed that the need to prevent children from starting to smoke in the first place was his main motivation for taking seriously a policy which the tobacco industry fears would be hugely damaging.
The health secretary indicated that some further restrictions on smoking are likely. They could be unveiled in his white paper on public health, which is due within days. “The levels of poor health and deaths from smoking are still far too high, and the cost to the NHS and the economy is vast. That money could be used to educate our children and treat cancer,” said Lansley.
His readiness to countenance such draconian action against cigarette manufacturers drew praise and delight from leading medical organisations.
“We are very pleased that the health secretary supports the plain packaging of cigarettes. There is clear evidence that young people find packaging appealing,” said a spokesman for the British Medical Association. “And we know that the tobacco industry spends huge amounts on this clever marketing to enhance their brands and increase sales.”