Wiping virtually all branding off cigarette and tobacco packets could prove crucial in turning teenagers off smoking, a New Zealand study indicates.

Australia is the first country to announce a plan to force tobacco into plain packaging with large pictorial health warnings - a move the industry says it will fight. From 2012, the only remnant of branding would be the name of the product, in uniform print. Gone would be the colours and attractive pictures.

"I think it would be hugely powerful for young people," Auckland University researcher Judith McCool said last night. "The pack is the last bastion of tobacco industry promotion."

Dr McCool co-supervised master's degree research by Lisa Webb in which 80 students aged 14 or 15 from six Auckland schools were interviewed about their attitudes to smoking, smokers, tobacco packaging and plain packets.

The Heart Foundation-funded study found the teenagers considered the plain packets they were shown to be dull, but said they enhanced the impact of the graphic health warnings.

"These perceptions were transferred to the act of cigarette smoking as an unattractive or uncool behaviour," the researchers said.

The teenagers thought plain packaging would remove the "purpose" of smoking. It then became simply a "bad habit" rather than a cool and rebellious behaviour".

Many submitters to the Maori affairs select committee's tobacco inquiry have urged the MPs to recommend the Government impose plain packaging on the industry among a range of new tobacco control policies.

Otago University marketing expert Professor Janet Hoek said plain packaging "would be a very powerful measure to decrease the attractiveness of smoking".

"When you ask young smokers, a lot say they thought smoking was cool. A lot also regret it when they become addicted. Ninety per cent of adult smokers regret it."

The Auckland study found that although the present graphic warnings - some of which show body parts diseased from smoking - were designed to prompt adult smokers to quit, they also led teenagers to view smokers as undesirable, prompting descriptions like "addicted", "lacking in common sense" and "social outcasts".

But the teenagers were confused by the health messages appearing on brightly coloured packets alongside brand imagery, and the researchers said this blunted the effect of the warnings.