The tobacco industry claims criminal gangs will be rubbing their hands with glee at the news that the government has announced a pre-election vote on plain cigarette packs.

Public health minister Jane Ellison announced a free vote for MPs ahead of the May general election, calling plain packaging a “proportionate and justified response” because of the health risks associated with smoking.

But tobacco firms called it an inexplicable move from the government and said plain packaging would be illegal, ineffective and anti-business.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage waded into the row, calling it an “appalling intrusion into consumer choice and the operation of the free market”. He also warned that “jobs and tax revenue would suffer”.

Jeremy Blackburn, head of Communications at B&H and Silk Cut supplier JTI, said: “We strongly consider that plain packaging would be unlawful.  It would deprive us of assets worth billions of pounds at a time when the UK economy appears to be turning the corner.

“It is inexplicable that the Government is rushing to legislate on this important issue, which was opposed by nearly two thirds of the respondents to a public consultation and over 40% of other EU Member States have raised concerns over the plain packaging proposals.

“JTI and others have repeatedly said that plain packaging would infringe EU requirements on the free movement of goods, violate property and other fundamental rights – including trademark rights – and go against obligations under EU and WTO rules.      

“We have no doubt the major crime syndicates across the globe are scrutinising these proposed regulations as the UK Government prepares to provide counterfeiters with a blueprint of exactly how to copy UK tobacco packs in the future. Brand owners of products in any controversial industries should prepare for similar anti-business measures as the Government has now made it clear that regulation will be passed despite the evidence showing that plain packaging doesn’t work.“

Imperial Tobacco said the move was politically motivated and contradicts evidence from Australia regarding its success.

General manager Melvin Ruigrok said: “The Government should evaluate the effectiveness of current tobacco control measures before proceeding with standardised packaging. No credible evidence has been forthcoming that it will contribute to improving public health.

“As shown in Australia, standardised packaging in England will merely act as a windfall for criminals looking to profit from the illicit trade; furthermore we will work on strengthening our brands which are defended by national, European and international laws concerning the protection of intellectual property.

“To reassure the trade; as an industry we have effectively and robustly navigated our way through a plethora of tobacco legislation whilst continuing to provide an important category for our trade partners. The Government announcement does not represent a done deal and we will continue to positively and proactively engage with the Government.”