By William James and Martinne Geller
LONDON, March 11 (Reuters) - Britain's parliament approved legislation on Wednesday to ban branding on cigarette packs, drawing immediate threats of legal action from the country's $29 billion tobacco industry.
Aimed at improving public health and cutting the number of child smokers, the measure is likely to crimp tobacco company profits and emulates Australia, which in 2012 enacted a law forcing cigarettes to be sold in plain olive green packaging with images showing the damaging effects of smoking.
British lawmakers effectively ended years of political debate, private lobbying and public consultation by passing the legislation by a margin of 367 votes to 113.
"We want all children in our country to grow up free from the burden of disease that tobacco brings," Public Health Minister Jane Ellison said in a statement, adding that the legislation should come into force by May 2016.
The proposal must still be debated and passed by the upper house of parliament before becoming law.
British American Tobacco told Reuters it anticipated launching a legal challenge within 30 days of the legislation's final approval.
"We've been forced into a position where they're going to be taking our property, so we will bring a legal challenge," said Jerome Abelman, head of corporate and regulatory affairs.
Imperial Tobacco Group said that if the measure became law the firm would be "left with no choice but to defend our legal rights in court." Japan Tobacco International said it expected to challenge the legislation and Philip Morris International said it was prepared to seek compensation.
The new rules would initially take effect in England only, though the Welsh government has said it will follow suit and Northern Ireland and Scotland are considering a similar step.
Tobacco is responsible for 6 million deaths a year globally and the World Health Organization estimates that number could rise beyond 8 million by 2030.
As well as causing cancer and other chronic respiratory conditions, smoking is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, the world's No. 1 killer.
"Standard packs will help reduce the number of lives blighted by this lethal product and help us move towards a tobacco free generation," said Harpal Kumar, chief executive of the charity Cancer Research UK.
A YouGov opinion poll conducted in February showed 72 percent of the British public supported plain packaging, with only 15 percent objecting to such proposals.
In 2014, Britain's tobacco market was estimated to be worth $29 billion, according to Euromonitor International, and in the same period the government provisionally estimated it collected 8.2 billion pounds ($14.24 billion) in cigarette duty. A pack of 20 cigarettes typically costs over 8 pounds ($12).
Tobacco firms have fiercely resisted the legislation, saying plain pack laws, which will also force product names to be printed in standardized fonts, infringe intellectual property rights covering brands and will increase counterfeiting and smuggling. ($1 = 0.6661 pounds) (Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)