The government is to begin a wide-ranging consultation on plain packaging of tobacco products by the end of the year, informed by the legal challenges Australia has faced as the first nation to pass such legislation.
Australia's parliament approved laws last month to introduce plain packaging from December 2012 to reduce the attraction of smoking, but three tobacco giants have launched lawsuits saying the laws infringe trademark rights.
Under the legislation, cigarette, pipe tobacco and cigars will have to be sold in branding-free olive green packs displaying the product name in a plain typeface along with graphic health warnings. Governments in Europe, Canada and New Zealand will be watching closely.
In March, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley announced plans to start considering a move towards plain packaging under a new tobacco control plan, but he gave no timescale.
The tobacco control plan confirms a commitment to consult by the end of this year on options to reduce the promotional impact of tobacco packaging, including an option to require plain packaging, said a Department of Health spokeswoman on Tuesday.
She added that the department was looking for expert legal advice on all aspects of a possible move, including the intellectual property right implications before it publishes a consultation document that would look at the costs as well as the additional public health benefits of policy options.
Only after this work, and gathering views and evidence from public consultation, will we be in a position to know whether it will be possible to proceed and if so, how, the spokeswoman said.
Earlier, Imperial Tobacco become the third tobacco group to challenge Australia's new laws in its High Court following similar moves by Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco.
The government is already introducing laws whereby tobacco products should be hidden from view in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from 2012 in large retailers and from 2015 in small retailers in a domestic market largely dominated by Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco.
(Reporting by David Jones; Editing by Will Waterman)