New Zealand could face legal action if it goes ahead with plans to ban branding on cigarette packets, says one of the world's biggest tobacco companies.
The Government has agreed "in principle" to introduce a plain packaging regime in line with Australia, depending on the outcome of a public consultation process.
However, in a rare interview a spokesman for tobacco giant Phillip Morris said stripping branding from cigarette packets in New Zealand could breach intellectual property rights.
Chris Bishop from Philip Morris New Zealand, which owns the Marlboro brand, told TVNZ's Q+A programme the company would be taking a robust stand against the proposal.
He added that the move will not have an impact on how many people smoke.
"There aren't any studies to suggest that plain packaging will work at stopping people from taking up smoking or help them to quit smoking," Bishop said.
"But there is a lot of evidence that it will breach intellectual property treaties and trade treaties that New Zealand is subject to."
Bishop said it is "way too early" to say if Philip Morris will sue the Government, because they are only in the consultation phase at this point.
Meanwhile Australia has pushed ahead with the move, and is being sued by four tobacco companies for breaching international copyrights.
If it loses, the Australian government could pay out billions of dollars in damages, and some fear the same could happen here.
Effect on competition
"Our big concern is brands. The colours and the logos and the architecture of our brands are not there and our argument is that it is a confiscation of our brands," said Bishop.
"It's about product differentiation and distinguishing our products from our competitors and that is what we are concerned about."
He said there has been a lot of research done into why young people take up smoking and the packaging and the branding is "irrelevant".
"There aren't any studies to suggest that plain packaging will work at stopping people from taking up smoking or help them to quit smoking."
Maori Party Tariana Turia wants to outlaw smoking and make New
Zealand smoke-free by 2025.
But Bishop said he does not think it is realistic.
"Twenty percent of New Zealanders smoke today, 2025 is 13 years away. Is it really realistic for the Government to expect that no one will at that time?
"And given that people will continue to want to smoke in New Zealand do we want them to smoke through a regulated market, where we can control access to minors and where people pay tax on the product, or do we want them to purchase them from organised crime?"
Former Act MP Deborah Coddington said banning smoking breaches a person's right to smoke.
The open display of cigarette and tobacco packs in all dairies and other shops will be banned from July 23 this year.
Bishop said he does not think this will make much of a difference.
"A few countries have tried this and there hasn't been very much impact on smoking rates.
"It will have an anti-competitive effect, so hiding the packets away will again not allow companies to compete and when you think about it, it actually does call into question whether plain packaging is necessary."
In April 2010 the Government introduced a series of excise tax hikes, which saw a significant decline in smoking as a result.