First it was an advertising blackout. Then smoking in public places was banned and the legal age to buy tobacco was raised from 16 to 18. And from October 2008, graphic health warnings featuring explicit and disturbing images of cancerous lungs and other diseased organs will feature on the front of every cigarette (and cigar) packet.

Yet still the government is not done. It is now proposing to force cigarettes below shop counters. Health minister Dawn Primarolo believes keeping tobacco products 'out of sight, out of mind' will cut the number of underage smokers.

But before consultation even begins in May, there are signs that for retailers and suppliers, enough is finally enough. Primarolo's proposals are under fire at every level.

First there's the cost. The Federation of Small Businesses estimates the cost to the UK's 50,000 small shops alone in terms of removing gantries and new security systems could top £50m.

Colin Finch, president of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents and owner of Fairview News in Blackwood, South Wales is outraged the money already made by stores on secure gantries, which he estimates at up to £4,500, will be wasted. "Why should we be unpaid regulators of a multibillion pound, revenue-generating industry for the Treasury?" he asks.

Finch is convinced the proposed legislation would kickstart a process where the integrity of tobacco products was lost. "Products are served off a gantry where customers can see the price. The warnings are well-lit so they can make an informed judgement. It also gives Trading Standards the chance to see that products for sale are legitimate," he says. "But if tobacco retailing is shrouded in secrecy it will become a dirty activity."

Perhaps most galling is the feeling that Primarolo's plans could actually increase underage smoking. "Hiding tobacco under the counter could make it more illicit, and desirable, to rebellious teenagers," Katherine Graham, campaign manager at Tobacco Alliance.

Finch agrees. "Forcing tobacco under the counter would play into the hands of people who want smoking to grow as it would be shrouded in secrecy."

The multiples are as aggrieved as small retailers. Claire Rice, tobacco buyer at Sainsbury's, says a ban is premature. "Without proven research it's difficult to see how not displaying cigarettes will stop people taking up smoking."

The most likely outcome is that legitimate business will be lost to smugglers and counterfeiters. Shane Brennan, ACS public affairs manager, estimates one fifth of tobacco smoked in the UK comes from illegitimate sources, at a cost of £2bn to the Treasury and £500m to retailers, yet little is done to prevent the perpetrators. Research by lobby group Retailers Against Smuggling, which represents more than 16,500 retailers, indicated one in five independents are considering closing because tobacco smuggling has hit their sales. And more than a third have considered laying off staff.

Manufacturers agree Primarolo's proposals would make matters worse and encourage people to buy from rogue traders.

"Her unnecessary regulations would do nothing to tackle illicit trade," adds Imperial Tobacco's trade communications spokesman, Neil Rooke.

People would simply get used to buying products that were not displayed, he says.

The Tobacco Manufacturers Association, which is preparing its submission opposing Primarolo's proposals, believes existing restrictions - including the on-pack images featured here -are sufficient for the government to achieve its target of cutting smoking in the population to 21% or less by 2010. "Our industry should be appropriately regulated," says Christopher Ogden, director of the TMA. "However, regulation must be fair and proportionate. It should avoid unnecessarily burdening retailers, especially small businesses."

Of course, these arguments against further onerous legislation could be perceived to be purely self-serving, but there are even industry experts who argue new legislation should be introduced.

"At the moment you can buy tobacco from someone who is under the age of 18 without facing sanctions. They should make this illegal," argues Brennan.

The key gripe of the industry, then, is not legislation per se, which it has broadly accepted and co-operated with. It's the wrong kind of legislation. Legislation that is conceived too quickly, and without considering the unintended, costly and potentially damaging consequences. n