There are fears of an unprecedented number of job losses at one major Northern Ireland factory if changes to European smoking rules go ahead.
Moves are now underway to increase the size of boxes of cigarettes and pouches of rolling tobacco in a bid to curb sales.
But a union official at the Japan Tobacco International (JTI) plant in Ballymena said it could put up to 30 per cent of its production workforce in jeopardy.
Unite shop steward Rodney Stewart said it would cut the number of packages being used, meaning fewer machines would be needed, manned by smaller numbers of staff.
He said the JTI plant now has a headcount of around 1,000 on the production side, and that if the proposals are pushed through then perhaps up to 300 of those jobs could end up being lost.
Such a change would, he believes, be the greatest job loss in the plant’s history.
He said: “This is not a situation of us crying wolf. This will happen. The people won’t be needed and lines will go.”
At the root of this are changes to the Tobacco Products Directive, to be discussed on Monday in Brussels.
Perhaps the biggest one on the cards is the possible scrapping of 12.5g pouches of rolling tobacco (known in the trade as Roll-Your-Own, or RYO).
The proposals, according to the office of UUP MEP Jim Nicholson, could see 40g become the smallest-possible size – greatly raising the minimum purchase price for a bag.
Some suggestions are for a compromise of 30g, but even this is no good, he said.
“If this compromise regarding the size of packs of tobacco packaging is pushed through next week, it could have dire consequences for Ballymena,” said Mr Nicholson.
Mr Stewart, an ex-smoker who says he does not want his own children to take up the habit either, does not feel this will alter behaviour. Rather, it will just push smokers towards the black market where they can buy the same volumes, only far cheaper.
“Personally, I can’t see how super-sizing packs is going to help people’s health,” said Mr Stewart.
Campaign group Action on Smoking and Health said: “Increasing price is the most effective lever for reducing uptake of smoking and encouraging people to quit.”
JTI itself said in a statement that an announcement may be made before Christmas on what the new rules are.
It said: “This announcement may see the introduction of minimum packs for both cigarettes and RYO products which could have an impact on jobs at our Ballymena factory, however it is not appropriate to speculate on the number of jobs potentially effected (sic) at this stage.”