Retailers in Ireland were left reeling after the Government rushed headfirst into plain packaging legislation, becoming the first country in Europe to announce firm plans to enforce new laws.

The hasty move has been agreed by the Government and health minister James Reilly has said he is sure that it will be written into the statute books, despite likely legal challenges.

Critics have accused the minister of trying to rush the legislation through in the face of a likely cabinet reshuffle and have said he should have paid more attention to figures emerging from Australia.

Retailers have said that the move will only drive more consumers into the hands of the illegal tobacco trade, which is already having a serious effect on their business.

Joe Sweeney, of Newscentre, Dublin said: “I’m very disappointed. I can’t understand why the minister has rushed it through when there are much more important things to be sorted in his own department and the government.

“We expected it to happen, but we thought it would fall back until he had further evidence of what’s happened in Australia.”

Sweeney doesn’t hold out much hope for potential court action – and he only sees one real winner. “We expect legal challenges, but I think he’s determined to see it through.

“There’s no doubt the illegal traders are delighted. It will increase the pressure on legitimate businesses. We’ve already seen some put out of business by the illegal trade.”