- Associated Press - Thursday, March 10, 2011

LONDON (AP) - The cigarette packs piled into prominent displays behind store counters and supermarket checkouts in England can’t be missed. They occupy prime retail real estate, helping to keep addicts hooked and quitters tempted.

But the government announced a ban on them Wednesday, a move that will keep cigarettes hidden away and make it just a tad more difficult for smokers to find their fix.

“We cannot ignore the targeting of young people through these displays,” England’s chief medical officer Sally Davies said in a statement, adding the can’t-miss-it advertising encourages teens “to start smoking at an age when they are less able to make an informed choice.”

England is following the lead of countries such as Iceland, Ireland and Canada, all of which have already forced cigarettes under the counter. Finland is also planning to introduce a ban on over-the-counter advertising in 2012, and a similar ban went into force in Norway at the beginning of last year.

That last ban even applies to imitation tobacco products such as chocolate cigarettes and licorice smoking pipes.

Cigarette packs in the U.K. already carry gruesome images of cancer-ridden lungs, corpses and tumors. Authorities are still mulling proposals to impose generic packaging on all tobacco products _ a move that would force cigarette makers to use plain, logo-free packs, aside from health warnings. Australia is already working toward a generic packaging system. If it followed suit, England would be the first nation in Europe to do so.

Meanwhile, the English display ban drew predictable responses from both sides of the tobacco wars, with health groups cheering and retailers grumbling.

The Association of Convenience Stores said the new regulations would impose 40 million pounds ($65 million) in costs as owners dismantled displays and refit counters, while the National Federation of Retail Newsagents described it as a “betrayal of our nation of shopkeepers.”

Both groups argued that there was no evidence to show such a ban would help improve public health.

Doctors disagreed. The British Medical Association said it was “very pleased” with the announcement, citing research which it said showed that a display ban would play “a key role in discouraging children from smoking and … also help smokers quit.”

The association’s only complaint was about the deadline _ which forces larger stores to take down their displays by April of 2012 and gives smaller stores an extra three years to comply with the ban.

In north London, most shopkeepers interviewed said they believed the new rules would be counterproductive.

Mohammad Mahmoodi, the Afghan-born manager of Capital Food convenience store in Camden, said that by shutting down displays the government would be “opening a window to a dodgy business.”

“There’ll be more of a chance for counterfeits” and contraband cigarettes if tobacco is kept under the counter, he warned.

England’s ban doesn’t apply to other regions in the U.K. such as Scotland, where the implementation of a similar law has been held up by litigation.

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