Health groups are lauding the government's cautious move towards tobacco plain packaging but an expert is warning government trade deals may mean it never happens.
Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia, the Maori Party co-leader, announced on Tuesday that the government will introduce new legislation before the end of the year to remove branded packs from shelves - depending on whether world-leader Australia can make it work first.
The government has been advised defending a legal challenge could cost $3-6 million, while one anti-smoking group says plain packaging will save $2 billion in health costs and 5000 lives.
The Smokefree Coalition says it is among the most important steps the government can take towards reaching its target of a smokefree New Zealand by 2025.
"[It] will remove the tobacco industry's last methods of making smoking appear glamorous and sophisticated to our children," said director Prudence Stone.
But a free trade expert says the decision to wait until Australia has first battled the tobacco companies is National "kicking for touch".
Auckland University's Professor Jane Kelsey predicts plain packaging laws will be pushed out well into the next parliamentary term, and by that time National will not need the Maori Party's support to remain in power.
It would then be free to abandon the law if it wanted to, she said.
She said tobacco companies were using trade and investment treaties to fight countries' anti-smoking efforts.
Plain packaging would be overtaken by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which would give tobacco companies "a whole new legal canvas on which to play", she said.
"If this is allowed to happen we can kiss goodbye to sensible public health policies - tobacco companies will rule the day."
Green Party health spokesperson Kevin Hague made a similar argument, saying a positive health initiative "was being undone by the government's free trade obsession".
It was disappointing new laws would not be activated until Australia had battled legal challenges from the World Trade Organisation (WTO), he said.
"Legislation that could save lives is being postponed because of the risk of New Zealand being sued due to free trade agreements we have signed in the past."
Their concerns are borne out by Philip Morris New Zealand corporate affairs manager Christopher Bishop, who in a statement on plain packaging, warned there was "strong evidence it breaches international trade rules and exposes New Zealand to WTO action".
"Today's announcement demonstrates that the New Zealand government has recognised the significant international trade issues with plain packaging and will not implement it unless these issues are resolved."
The legislation is expected to have the support of nearly all parties in parliament.