* Believes UK govt has decided before consultations end
* Claims UK is trying to fit evidence to meet its view
* UK Health Department says no decision had been made
* Consultation period continues until Aug. 10
By David Jones
LONDON, July 6 The British government has already decided to require cigarettes to be sold in plain, brand-free packets even though it has not yet completed its consultation on the issue, cigarette maker Japan Tobacco claimed on Friday.
The group, which sells Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut cigarettes in Britain, believes Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's anti-smoking stance and a flawed consultation process suggests the government will push ahead with so-called plain packaging.
"There are worrying indicators that the Department of Health has decided to introduce plain packaging," Martin Southgate, managing director of the UK for Japan Tobacco International (JTI) told a briefing on Friday.
"The government is trying to fit the evidence to meet a pre-determined view," he added.
The Department of Health said no decision would be taken until the consultation had ended and the evidence analysed as it looks at ways to cut the number of young people taking up smoking and assist existing smokers who are trying to quit.
"We're in the consultation process, and we have made no decision. We remain open-minded," a department spokeswoman said.
Britain kicked off a three-month consultation process back in April on plain packaging as it looked to deter a habit which it says is responsible for over 100,000 UK deaths a year and puts pressure on the public health system.
It extended the process by a month to August 10 on Thursday after receiving thousands of responses and it said it wanted to make sure everyone who wanted to contribute can.
Just before the consultation was launched, Lansley was quoted in media interviews as saying "we no longer see smoking as a part of life" and that he wanted tobacco companies to have "no business" in the UK.
Australia is the only nation with firm plans to introduce plain packaging which will ban eye-catching designs and branding from cigarette packages with the packs displaying the product names in a plain typeface with graphic health warnings.
The Canberra government plans legislation to take effect by December, but big cigarette companies including Japan Tobacco are mounting legal challenges to fight the move in the Australian High Court.
JTI's Southgate argues there is no credible evidence to suggest plain packaging will reduce youth smoking and it will exacerbate illicit trade which accounts for a fifth of the cigarettes smoked in the UK and loses the government around 3 billion pounds a year in lost excise tax.
"We are concerned that the Department of Health will aim to justify plain packaging using the best guess and subjective views of its preferred panel of individuals and that these people will be already involved in tobacco control work and studies," he said.
The group, No 3 in the tobacco world after Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, is to spend 2 million pounds over the coming months on an advertising campaign against plain packaging which starts this weekend.
Japan Tobacco took over Gallaher in 2007 giving it a near 40 percent share of the UK cigarette market behind Imperial Tobacco at just over 45 percent, but ahead of BAT with just a 6 percent market share.
All three are opposed to plain packaging saying there is no evidence that such a move would have an effect and that it would simply increase illicit trade in cigarettes.