Australia is to become the first country to enforce the plain packaging of cigarettes but tobacco companies have vowed to fight the new legislation in court.
From December next year, all cigarettes will be sold in olive green packs, which research has shown is least appealing to smokers.
Under the new laws, approved by the upper house of parliament, no trademark brand logos will be permitted on any packaging of tobacco products, although companies will be able to print their name and the cigarette brand in small, prescribed font on the packets.
The boxes will continue to carry stark health warning messages and pictures, which will cover 75% of the front of the pack and 90% of the back.
“If this legislation stops one young Australian from picking up a shiny, coloured packet and prevents them becoming addicted to cigarettes then in my view it will have been worthwhile,” said John Faulkner, a Labor senator, during the parliamentary debate.
The debate in Australia has been keenly watched around the world, including in Britain, Canada and New Zealand where similar plans to curtail branding are being considered.
Cigarette giant British American Tobacco, which owns 46% of the Australian market, plans to challenge the legislation in the high court on constitutional grounds.
“The government can’t take away valuable property from a legal company without compensation,” said Scott McIntyre, spokesman for British American Tobacco Australia.
McIntyre said the company’s brands, including Winfield and Benson & Hedges, were worth billions of dollars.
“We’re a legal company with legal products selling to adults who know the risks of smoking. We’re taking this to the high court because we believe the removal of our valuable intellectual property is unconstitutional,” he said.
Cigarette makers Philip Morris Australia said the legislation meant it had little option but to pursue its compensation claim “through international arbitration against Australia and to also consider domestic legal action under Australian law”.
The health minister, Nicola Roxon, said the government would not be bullied by the tobacco industry’s threat of a legal challenge.
“We’re ready for that if they take legal action. We hope that they don’t. We believe that this is a measure that’s in the interests of the community and it would be better off for tobacco companies to look at ways they could invest in something that’s not so harmful for the community,” Roxon told reporters in Melbourne.
Cigarette companies also say the plain-packaging legislation will increase the sale of illegal tobacco. “Once the packs all look the same they will be very easy to copy,” said McIntyre.
Fifteen thousand Australians die from smoking-related illnesses each year with the social cost of smoking to the Australian economy estimated to be more than A$30bn (£19bn) a year.
Anti-smoking groups have welcomed the legislation. “We believe that it will reduce smoking in younger people and the fact that tobacco companies have been using packs very effectively as one of the last forms of advertising is one reason why they’re so upset about it,” said Professor Ian Olver, chief executive officer of the Australian Cancer Council.
Fifteen per cent of adults in Australia smoke compared with 23% a decade ago. In Britain about 22% of the adult population smokes, according to Cancer Research UK.
Australia already has some of the toughest smoking regulations in the world. Cigarettes must be sold behind closed doors in retail outlets and advertising and sponsorship deals are banned. It is illegal to smoke in any public places including bars, restaurants or entertainment venues. Some local councils have banned smoking in parks and outdoor areas.