Australia's government may have to delay plans for the world's toughest anti-tobacco laws after conservative opposition lawmakers on Wednesday postponed a final vote on the controversial legislation in parliament.
The new laws, which will force cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging from 2012, are being closely watched by New Zealand, Canada, the European Union and Britain, which are considering similar restrictions.
Health Minister Nicola Roxon said the conservatives, who managed to postpone an upper house Senate vote on the bills during a rancorous day in parliament for the minority Labor government, were playing into the hands of big tobacco firms.
"Given the delays in passing the bill caused by the opposition, the government now has no choice but to reconsider the impact on implementation timeframes," Roxon said.
Australia says the new laws reflect its obligations under the World Health Organization's 2005 framework against tobacco, which urges states to consider plain packaging laws. The WHO estimates more than 1 billion around the world are regular smokers, with 80 per cent in low and middle income countries.
The laws have angered tobacco producers who have threatened a High Court challenge, while the governments of Nicaragua and Ukraine said the new measures breached international trade rules and would be challenged in the World Trade Organization.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard's government is hoping the laws will come into effect on January 1 next year, although the main provisions forcing all cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging only come into operation on July 1, 2012.
The delay in the Senate means the laws will not be voted on before November, forcing the government to reconsider now whether it can meet its deadlines.
Australia's Cancer Council said the Senate should end the political delays and get on with passing the legislation, with authorities estimating smoking now kills 15,000 Australians each year and costs the health system US$32 billion (S$41 billion).
"We know the tobacco industry is vehemently opposed to plain packaging, which is just another indication that plain packaging has great potential to reduce tobacco," council chief executive Ian Olver said.
Analysts say tobacco companies like Britain's Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris are worried that plain packaging could spread to emerging markets like Brazil, Russia and Indonesia, and threaten growth there.
Australia's tobacco market generated total revenues of around US$10 billion in 2009, up from A$8.3 billion in 2008, although smoking generally has been in decline. Around 22 billion cigarettes are sold in the country each year.
British American Tobacco, whose brands include Winfield, Dunhill and Benson & Hedges, has said the government's plans would infringe international trademark and intellectual property laws, promising a court challenge to the laws.