c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

LONDON — Until recently, the British government appeared to be on the verge of rejecting sweeping restrictions on cigarette packaging. But on Thursday it changed course, announcing a policy review that could lead to curbs on labeling and require the use of neutral colors on packages.

The effort is the latest in a series of health initiatives across Europe meant to force the tobacco industry to make cigarettes appear less attractive to younger people, and in that way prevent them from taking up the habit.

Britain’s inquiry, which would conclude by next March, will focus on the experience of Australia, which has introduced standardized packaging. Similar plans may soon be adopted in Ireland and New Zealand.

This could mean that brand names would be restricted to a limited display in uniform fonts and that the color of packs would be standardized in Britain.

Such measures would go further than new minimum requirements currently being legislated by the European Union, which wants to increase the size of health warnings to 65 percent of the pack size, up from the current requirement of 30 percent minimum on the front and 40 percent on the back.

Under the European legislation, which is now being completed, the use of fruit and menthol flavorings for cigarettes would be banned, as would packets of fewer than 20 cigarettes. This would aim at packs of 10, which are seen as more affordable for teenagers.

Britain’s move to study tougher labeling guidelines took many by surprise. While the government had officially said it would keep an open mind on the adoption of standardized packaging, all the signs earlier this year were that it had slipped off the legislative radar.

But on Thursday Jane Ellison, a junior health minister, told lawmakers that with the anniversary of Australia’s passage of its measure, “new evidence is emerging rapidly.”

“We must do all we can to stop young people from taking up smoking in the first place,” she said, adding that each year in England more than 300,000 children under the age of 16 try smoking for the first time and that most smokers start before they are 18. The new inquiry will be headed by a prominent pediatrician, Cyril Chantler, Ellison added.