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Plain packaging as early as 2014

By Laura McQuillan

The government hopes plain packaging of tobacco products could be in place next year - but that will depend on what further legal challenges world-leader Australia faces over the issue.

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia announced on Tuesday that the government will introduce new legislation before the end of the year.

It will mean the colours and designs of cigarette and tobacco packaging will be standardised and regulated "to maximise the impact of the health warnings", and tobacco brand names will be printed in standardised fonts and sizes, Mrs Turia said.

"Currently the packaging does everything it can to attract consumers and increase the perceived appeal and acceptability of smoking. The bright colours and other design elements divert people's attention away from the health warnings which tell the truth about just how deathly dangerous smoking is," Mrs Turia said.

"The move to plain packaging would make more explicit what tobacco is - a product that kills 5000 New Zealanders a year."

The government has been advised defending a legal challenge could cost $3-6 million.

In Australia, big tobacco companies last year lost a lawsuit in the High Court over plain packaging.

However, the Australian government could face an appeal, while the companies and tobacco-producing countries have also lodged a complaint in the World Trade Organisation.

Mrs Turia says the government is watching to see what happens in Australia, and that could see enactment of the law delayed here.

Former tobacco industry spokesman Carrick Graham responded to the announcement by tweeting: "$3-$6 million costs coming Tariana Turia's way. Thanks NZ taxpayers."

However, the Cancer Society says it's "a major step" towards New Zealand becoming smokefree by 2025 - a goal Mrs Turia has championed as Maori Party co-leader.

Another group, Action on Smoking and Health, says the government should move to pass the law as swiftly as possible.

"The need to avoid delay is crucial. The lives of New Zealanders are being put above the interests of the tobacco giants."

The announcement follows a public consultation process, which saw tobacco giants British American Tobacco and Philip Morris spend thousands of dollars on campaigns against plain packaging.

The legislation is expected to have the support of nearly all parties in parliament.