Last week, more than 50 young people from all over the country travelled to voice their support for standardised cigarette packaging at British American Tobacco’s Annual General Meeting in London.

Their colourful banners stated ‘plain packs protect’ while another read ‘I don’t ever wanna lose my best friend, smoking kills’. The cardboard cut-outs perfectly reflected peer-reviewed research that shows standardised packs would:

  • Reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products, particularly for young people
  • Increase the prominence and effectiveness of health warnings

It’s not difficult to understand why the British Heart Foundation supports standardised packs. Tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable premature death and 25,000 deaths from heart and circulatory disease each year are as a result of smoking. Crucially, two-thirds of adult smokers started before they turned 18.

Despite the tobacco industry’s misleading claims about smuggling and counterfeiting, a wealth of good evidence shows standardised packs are popular, inexpensive and will help stop young people getting hooked on a lethal habit.

So far so good, right? Surely it’s only a matter of time before the UK follows Australia’s lead and introduces legislation? Well, in the last few weeks all the noises have been very positive. A senior Whitehall source apparently told the Guardian that there would be legislation, with the newspaper claiming it would be announced as part of the Queen’s speech next week. Public health minister Anna Soubry MP even declared she was in favour of standardised packs on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

But now we’re hearing something very different. The word from Westminster reaching campaigners is that we might not get this life-saving legislation after all.

It’s at this point we have to look to the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt MP, for leadership. When he was appointed, Mr Hunt set out four priorities that he wanted to be judged on at the General Election in 2015. One of those was improving mortality rates. He said: “We languish in the lower half of the European league tables for cancer survival rates, respiratory and many other diseases. We should be the best – and if we were 20,000 lives would be saved every year.”

If Mr Hunt does indeed want to join Europe’s top table, standardised cigarette packaging will help him get there. Legislation on this issue cannot come soon enough.