AN East Lancashire shopkeeper has slammed government plans to force cigarette sales "under the counter".

Suleman ‘Solly’ Khonat, who runs two newsagents in Blackburn, said plans to ban displays of cigarettes in shops would unfairly hit retailers.

Coun Khonat, who takes over as the chairman of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents next year, said: “We agree there is a need to reduce smoking among young people but penalising stores is not the answer.”

Coun Khonat, who represents the Shear Brow ward on Blackburn with Darwen Council, runs Burnley Road News and Redlam News in Bank Top.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson has unveiled the plans in a bid to cut smoking by children.

Mr Johnson also announced that the Government was taking on powers to make it more difficult for under-18s to use cigarette vending machines - and may ban them if that does not work.

The move to ban prominent displays of tobacco products and advertising at the point of sale provoked storms of protest from shopkeepers, who argue it will cost them much-needed business during the economic crisis.

But Mr Johnson said that the ban would be introduced in supermarkets first, and that corner shop owners would have to "diversify" as smoking rates fell.

The ban could come into force in supermarkets by 2011.