Dr Reilly said he was braced for an onslaught of legal challenges from the tobacco industry and he would be “astonished” if Big Tobacco didn’t fight him “tooth and nail all the way”.
The minister said Cabinet had approved the general scheme for legislation which will make it mandatory for tobacco to be sold in standardised packaging with large graphic health warnings dominating the packaging making it more difficult for tobacco firms to promote their brands.
He said this was particularly important because research showed children were attracted to the bright “feel nice, look cool” packaging of cigarette brands and the industry needed younger smokers to replace the 5,200 people in Ireland who die from tobacco-related diseases every year.
Seventy-eight percent of smokers picked up the habit under the age of 18, he said.
“We know they are hell bent on delaying, and every year delayed in this country means another 5,200 people dead. So we have to move as quickly as we can. They [tobacco] see it in terms of another year of profit… that’s all it is for them,” said Dr Reilly.
“Be under no illusion, this fight has only begun. This is another important step along the road but each step we have to fight hard to achieve,” he said.
Recommendations from the health minister will now go before the Oireachtas health committee, chaired by Cork South Central TD Jerry Buttimer, for further discussion with the aim to have the new legislation in place in the second half of 2014.
“I want this to go to our Oireachtas health committee where it can be explored, where there can be widespread consultation, and where we can get this bill as perfect as possible before we publish it, and we then will continue to monitor through the normal processes other amendments that may be brought in,” said Dr Reilly.
He said he would be astonished if the tobacco industry did not wage legal action against Ireland as it did in Australia, which was the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging. Australia was threatened with numerous legal actions, with some claiming it broke World Trade Organisation regulations.
He dismissed claims that plain packaging would lead to more tobacco smuggling saying Revenue was not concerned and said only 1% of all tobacco products were counterfeit.
Earlier this year Dr Reilly announced plans for a smoke-free Ireland by 2025.
Smokers’ rights group Forest Éireann said it plans to challenge the legislation.
Spokesman John Mallon said: “There is no evidence that plain packs will stop children smoking or reduce smoking rates among adults.
“The most common reasons children start smoking is because of peer pressure or the influence of family members. Packaging has nothing to do with it.”