A Maori anti-smoking group has won a rare public apology from a global giant in the tobacco industry.

The head of tobacco company Philip Morris, Louis Camilleri, yesterday issued an unprecedented apology to Maori during a shareholders meeting in New York for using Maori images on packs of Israeli cigarettes.

A spokesman yesterday reiterated the apology to One News: "We sincerely regret any discomfort that was caused to Maori people by our mistake and we won't be repeating it."

The apology came after an impassioned speech by Maori Smokefree Coalition-Te Reo Marama director Shane Bradbrook.

Mr Bradbrook attacked the marketing practices of the company uncovered last year by a New Zealander's discovery of cigarettes being sold in Israel branded "Maori Mix".

"Let me tell you, this product called 'Maori Mix' was an absolute affront to my people," Mr Bradbrook said.

"Your company's misappropriation and exploitation of our culture to sell your product of death and illness to Israelis was at a minimum culturally insensitive and at worst another form of oppression and abuse that indigenous peoples have faced for decades."

Mr Bradbrook and the organisation's youth advocate, Skye Kimura, joined Global Partnerships for Tobacco Control this week to raise issues of misappropriation of Maori culture at the meeting of Philip Morris' parent company, Altria.

Speaking from New York, Mr Bradbrook said it was "fantastic" to receive the apology from the head of Altria. "He didn't do it just once he did it three times. He said they made a mistake [and] 'I am sorry this has occurred, and that we have offended you and your people'."

Mr Bradbrook said the apology surprised other veteran protesters there.

"One person who has been to seven of the company's shareholder meetings said they had never heard the company head apologise before."