IRELAND is set to become the second country in the world to introduce plain pack cigarettes, it emerged today.
The Health Minister announced Government approval for his controversial plans to force tobacco companies to use generic packaging, which he hopes to have enacted early next year.
Dr James Reilly said while many arguments will be made against the move, he is confident the legislation will be justified and supported purely by the fact that it will save lives.
"Smoking places an enormous burden of illness and mortality on our society, with over 5,200 people dying every year from tobacco-related diseases," said Dr Reilly.
"One in two of all smokers will die from their addiction.
"To replace the smokers who quit, the tobacco industry needs to recruit 50 new smokers in Ireland every day just to maintain smoking rates at their current level.
"Given that 78% of smokers in a survey said they started smoking under the age of 18, it's clear that the tobacco industry focuses on children to replace those customers who die or quit."
Ireland follows Australia as the second country globally to legislate for the plain packaging of tobacco products.
It was also the first country in the world to enforce a workplace smoking ban, which included pubs and restaurants, in March 2004.
It was the first country in the European Union to remove all tobacco advertising from retail outlets.
The Irish Cancer Society and the Irish Heart Foundation welcomed the announcement, which was criticised by retailers.
Retailers Against Smuggling (RAS) accused the minister of "not giving a damn" about independent retailers and fuelling the illicit tobacco trade.
RAS spokesman Benny Gilsenan said plain packaging would only benefit criminals.
"Minister Reilly has ignored the fact that we have a huge cigarette smuggling problem in this country and that plain packaging will make life easier for smugglers to produce black-market cigarettes," he said.
"If plain packaging is brought in, it will be yet another nail in the coffin for small retail businesses around the country."
However, anti-smoking charities maintained children will be less likely to start smoking because of the new legislation.
Chris Macey, of the Irish Heart Foundation, said the faster the legislation is introduced, the more lives will be saved.
"To maintain its profit levels, the tobacco industry has to replace the smokers it kills - almost always with teenagers who they target through massive investment in attractive cigarette packs," he claimed.
"Plain packaging is proving to be a powerful weapon in making smoking less appealing and health warnings more effective."
Dr Reilly said some cigarette brands are using attractive, colourful packaging shaped like a perfume box, which he claims is aimed at getting the attention of young smokers, particularly girls.
He revealed new plain boxes will be a generic size and colour, and will only feature the brand name on the bottom and a large picture showing the harmful effects of cigarettes, like rotting lungs.
He made the announcement ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Friday, which is themed "ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship".
"The introduction of standardised packaging will remove the final way for tobacco companies to promote their deadly product in Ireland," Dr Reilly added.
"Cigarette packets will no longer be a mobile advertisement for the tobacco industry."
Ireland has been at the forefront of efforts to curb smoking with the 2004 workplace ban followed by a ban on the sale of ten packs in 2007, the end of retail displays and adverts in 2009 and picture health warnings on packets this year.
The big tobacco companies claimed the move will do more harm to the economy by making smuggling easier rather than stopping children from taking up the habit.
John Freda, of JTI Ireland (Japan Tobacco International), claimed: "There is a complete absence of credible evidence to demonstrate that plain packaging will lead to a reduction in youth smoking."
Andrew Meagher, managing director of John Player, said: "This decision plays into the hands of the criminal gangs who profit from counterfeit tobacco; their job will be significantly easier now that all tobacco products are intended to be sold in the same generic packaging."
The Irish Tobacco Manufacturers Advisory Committee said: "Packs which are extremely easy to reproduce coupled with minimal fines for sellers and smugglers and a thriving black market thanks to the cost of legitimate product means that this is a great day for tobacco criminals."
Dr Ross Morgan, chairman of anti-smoking lobby Ash Ireland, said plain packets are needed to compete with the tactics of tobacco companies.
"Plain packaging is a vitally important tool in tackling the slick marketing of the tobacco industry - and their specific skill at making these killer products seem attractive for young people," he said.
A senator in the Irish parliament has also produced proposed legislation to outlaw smoking in cars carrying children.
The UK Government has put similar plans for an end to branded cigarette packs on the backburner.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said Ireland has always been ahead of the UK on the issue.
"The UK Government should follow Ireland's lead, stop dithering and commit to implementing standardised packaging without further delay. This will be both popular and effective, there's no need to wait any longer," she said.