WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand said on Tuesday (May 31) it will introduce plain packaging on tobacco products, joining a growing list of countries planning similar measures despite the threat of legal action from the industry.
The move, which coincides with World No Tobacco Day, means cigarettes must be sold in drab boxes plastered with health warnings and gruesome pictures of smoking-related disease.
Associate Health Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga said the measure targeted one of the most powerful tools used to get young people hooked on tobacco.
"Twelve New Zealanders die prematurely every day from smoking-related illnesses - each of these deaths is preventable," he said.
New Zealand first proposed plain packaging in 2013, saying it would "remove the last remaining vestige of glamour from these deadly products".
But it was put on hold pending the outcome of tobacco giant Philip Morris' legal action against the Australian government, which pioneered the introduction of plain packets in 2012.
The lawsuit failed last December and since then a number of countries, including Britain and France, have passed legislation on the issue.
Numerous other countries, including Canada, Singapore, Belgium and South Africa have announced plans to follow suit, according to data from the Canadian Cancer Council.
With momentum building, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has made "Get Ready For Plain Packaging" the slogan of this year's World No Tobacco Day.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key admitted the fact that so many countries were adopting the packaging had emboldened his government to ignore the threat of legal action from Big Tobacco.
"They may well take a case against the government, but the advice we have been getting over time now has been that the risks of them being successful... is reducing," he told reporters.
The New Zealand ban is not immediate. There is a two-month consultation, then Lotu-Iiga said recommendations on implementation would go to the government later this year.
British American Tobacco NZ said it remained "strongly opposed" to plain packaging and reserved the right to take legal action.
"BATNZ hopes that the government will review all the evidence and be cautious about progressing a measure that has failed in Australia," it said in a statement.
A study commissioned by the Australian government found tobacco use dropped 14.4 per cent in the two years after Canberra's world-first ban was introduced.
The Maori Party, which first proposed plain packaging in New Zealand, said smoking rates among the indigenous population were well above average and the ban was long overdue.
"It is also a message to international tobacco companies that New Zealand will not be intimidated by threats of legal action," co-leader Marama Fox said.