The tobacco industry has voiced concern that the government has already made up its mind to ban tobacco displays in stores ahead of a consultation process kicking off today.

The fears were raised this week after health secretary Alan Johnson openly welcomed proposals by Scottish ministers to drive cigarettes under the counter.

"I think they're right to do that and we're considering that as well," said Johnson ahead of a DoH consultation into tobacco control.

His comments provoked outrage in the industry and sparked claims that the health secretary has jumped the gun on the idea of a display ban.

John Murphy, director general of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, called for Johnson to carefully look at the implications for small businesses before "railroading this through". "He should consult and review the evidence before him before he comes to any firm conclusions," Murphy told The Grocer. "The cost implications would damage smaller retailers more than others and the driving underground of tobacco is going to help only the fraudsters."

Iain Watkins, Imperial Tobacco's UK trade communications manager, said it was "vitally important the views of tobacco retailers are fully considered", adding Imperial Tobacco was 'totally opposed' to regulation that restricts or prohibits retailers from displaying products at point of sale.

The Association of Convenience Stores, which predicts the ban could cost the sector as much as £252m, demanded evidence it would reduce smoking.

Colin Finch, president of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, agreed: "Our most pressing concern is that the proposed shift to a ban on the public display will cost small family-run businesses thousands of pounds in refurbishment and training and have no impact in helping youngsters stop smoking."