Yesterday 367 MPs voted in favour of the move while 113 voted against, following a long-running battle between the industry and the health lobby since the government’s original move to standardise packaging in 2011.
Speaking on behalf of thousands of retailers, James Lowman, chief executive at the Association of Convenience Stores, said: “We have consistently told ministers and policymakers that the introduction of standardised packaging will place significant operational burdens on retailers.
“We are disappointed with this decision, and would have liked to see a review of existing and upcoming tobacco control measures, such as the tobacco display ban, before the Government introduce more regulations on small stores.”
Nicky Strong, regulatory lawyer at law firm Bond Dickinson, said the move would encourage counterfeiting, was not grounded in evidence that it would work and would potentially be illegal.
“In spite of repeated warnings from industry experts, this vote shows that the Government remains committed to pushing ahead with the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco products,” said Strong.
“Similar legislation was implemented in Australia in December 2012 and passed in Ireland earlier this month. In both of these cases, strong legal challenges continue to be made, particularly focusing on the restriction of intellectual property.
“Concerns have also been raised about the impact that the introduction of plain packaging would have on the counterfeit products market, lowering the barriers to entry, and yet little appears to have been done to address this very real concern.
“Without firm evidence to sweeping legislative changes such as this, lawmakers will inevitably face potentially lengthy legal challenges. In this case it is widely acknowledged that the data from the Australian experiment is not yet sufficient to enable robust conclusions to be made.
“If the law makes no positive impact on smoking take-up and sees tax revenue to the Treasury fall, this will be widely judged to have been a mistake. These changes will certainly be contested and the Government will have to provide the evidence that appears to be lacking at the present time.”
The world’s largest tobacco firms vowed to fight the government in court to reverse the decision.
Jerome Abelman, corporate affairs director at Lucky Stripe supplier BAT, said: “This legislation is a case of the UK government taking property from a UK business without paying for it. That is illegal under both UK and European law.”
Imperial Tobacco reminded retailers that the vote on plain packaging it still needs to pass through the House of Lords before it can become law.
Duncan Cunningham, head of UK corporate and legal affairs, said: “We remain clear that the introduction of plain packaging legislation would be a mistake.
“The evidence from Australia demonstrates that it won’t change consumption trends or reduce youth smoking but will play into the hands of criminals who profit from illicit trade. This policy is bad for business.
“If plain packaging passes into law, we would regrettably be left with no choice but to defend our legal rights in court as we have a fundamental right to differentiate our brands from those of our competitors.”
Daniel Torras, Managing Director at JTI, added: “This divisive legislation has been rushed through Parliament, with little regard for proper scrutiny and debate. Regulators have disregarded the results of public consultations, evidence reviews and impact assessments, not to mention the overlap with other legislation such as the ban on displaying tobacco in shops and the wide-ranging EU Tobacco Products Directive. The Government is using the General Election as the finishing line and has hurried this policy along, stifling debate among MPs and giving little opportunity for opposing views to be aired.
“This is a cut-and-paste copycat policy from Australia, where plain packaging has not worked. It’s putting politics before process, evidence and debate. We consider this legislation to be unlawful, JTI therefore expects to challenge the legislation through the legal channels available to us.
“We have repeatedly warned policy-makers that plain packaging is a smugglers’ charter. The organized crime gangs behind the global black market in illegal tobacco welcome this legislation, which will provide them with a blueprint for counterfeiting cigarettes. Illegal tobacco funds serious crime and terrorism, it steals trade from legal businesses and makes cheap unregulated cigarettes accessible to children. The black market is a huge problem and plain packaging will make it much worse.”
But anti-smoking lobby group Ash congratulated the MPs that voted for plain packaging.
Chief executive Deborah Arnott said: “The Government and MPs from all parties are to be congratulated for resisting the bully-boy tactics and misinformation of the tobacco industry and for implementing the most important public health reform of this Parliament.”