By William James
LONDON (Reuters) - The British government on Friday delayed plans to ban company branding on cigarette packets in England, saying it wanted to first see the impact of a similar decision in Australia.
The move was welcomed by the tobacco industry which says plain packaging would hit jobs and encourage cigarette smuggling, but strongly criticized by health campaigners.
Britain's government published the results of a consultation on plain packaging which showed 53 percent of respondents in favor of the measure, but said it had decided to wait until the impact of the Australian ban could be measured.
Last year, Australia passed a law saying cigarettes must be sold in dark brown packets with no colors or logos, with the name of the product printed in a standardized small font.
The new law's detractors say it goes too far, noting that cigarette packs were already emblazoned with health warnings.
Until earlier this year, when the plan was omitted from its legislative plans, Britain had looked set to become the first European country to follow suit.
"Obviously we take very seriously the potential for standardized packaging to reduce smoking rates, but in light of the differing views, we have decided to wait until the emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured, and then we will make a decision in England," Health Minister Jeremy Hunt said.
Hunt's delay is at odds with Britain's backing for the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a non-binding treaty that advocates plain packaging and is the basis for Australia's law.
Cancer Research UK said it was "bitterly disappointing".
"The government has stalled in the face of strong evidence and instead reacted to myths perpetuated by the tobacco industry, an industry well-known for suppressing the truth about its lethal products," said a spokesman.
Imperial Tobacco, the world's fourth-largest cigarette group by market share, said it welcomed the delay.
"We've always made our views clear that there's no evidence that plain packaging would achieve its stated outcome, that it would be anti-competitive, and we've always pointed out the impact it would have on the illicit trade in the UK which is growing," a spokesman said.
The World Health Organization said plain packaging would increase the impact of health warnings, stop consumers thinking that some products were less harmful, and make tobacco products less attractive for adults and children.
A study published by the WHO this month said tens of millions of deaths could be averted if tobacco control policies were extended globally.
Tobacco control advocates say the tobacco firms are aggressively trying to stymie tobacco control measures, chiefly through legal actions brought by four countries at the World Trade Organization, in hope of overturning the Australian law.
The WTO challenge brought by Ukraine, Cuba, Honduras and Dominican Republic could take a year or more to reach a conclusion, but it has not yet started, since the complainants have yet to trigger the litigation phase of the trade dispute, and have no obligation to do so.
Even if Australia wins the legal cases, the mere fact of the challenges could create "regulatory chill" elsewhere, Tania Voon, a professor at Melbourne Law School, said at an academic debate on tobacco control in Geneva this week.
"Other governments are less likely to continue at least while these disputes are proceeding and even if Australia wins other countries may think twice by reflecting on the amount of time and effort and money that Australia had to expend in order to be able to maintain this measure," she said.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Alison Williams)