Following the example set by Australia over two years ago, the UK government is looking to pass a law before May’s general election on plain packaging for cigarettes “after carefully considering the evidence”.

Cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco will have to be sold in standardised packs from May 2016, public health minister Jane Ellison confirmed. She said that the policy, which will see a free vote on the matter in the Commons, is “a proportionate and justified response to the considerable public health harm from smoking tobacco”.

Ms Ellison said the government hopes the regulations for standardised packaging will come into force at the same time as the European Tobacco Products Directive in May 2016. The latter will bring in a wider range of measures, including larger picture health warnings and a ban on flavourings, including menthol.

Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, welcomed the government’s backing for the policy, saying “I have reviewed the evidence, and agree that standardised packaging would be a positive move for public health, particularly the role it could play in helping to prevent the uptake of smoking by children”.

Cancer Research UK released figures from a 1,800-adult survey which showed that 72% of voters across the political spectrum said they support removing the colourful designs and branding from tobacco packaging, replacing them with packs of uniform size and prominent health warnings. Some 15% were opposed to the measure.

The charity’s chief executive, Harpal Kumar, said that “by stripping cigarette packs of their marketing features, we can reduce the number of young people lured into an addiction, the products of which are death and disease”.