TORONTO - Ontario smokers will soon have to thumb through a binder to pick the brand of their choice at convenience stores as the province ushers in a ban on cigarette displays which the government says is necessary to save lives despite growing concern among store owners.

While Ontario's 10,000 convenience stores say half of them won't be ready to hide all their smokes by the province's May 31 deadline, Premier Dalton McGuinty said businesses have had years to comply with new rules which he said will making smoking less of a temptation for kids.

"This is a health issue,'' McGuinty said.

"Don't we have to put health first? You ask any parents -- smokers and non-smokers alike -- 'Do you want your kids to start smoking?' They'll all give you the same answer, 'Of course I don't.'

"Science has demonstrated that these power walls are effective at enticing kids so we want to get beyond that.''

The new ban prevents all tobacco products from being displayed in any way and prohibits customers from even touching them before they're paid for. The province says store owners have to make sure tobacco products aren't displayed to any potential customer at any time, including during restocking or inventory checks.

Store owners can't put cigarettes behind "garage-style'' or cupboard doors that open to display the entire inventory. Curtains or blinds are also not acceptable. The province suggests overhead containers or below-the-counter drawers that are only visible behind the counter.

It's time convenience stores stopped selling cigarettes right beside "Twizzlers and hockey cards,'' said Minister of Health Promotion Margarett Best.

"The industry knew this was coming for over three years,'' Best said in the legislature recently. "We are working with our partners to ensure a smooth transition.''

But many say the switch is going to be anything but smooth. While Best said enforcement officers have visited over 5,000 Ontario stores to prepare them for the new law, many say store owners need more time and government support.

Although the display ban was passed under the Smoke-Free Ontario Act two years ago, store owners didn't get the specific requirements until the end of January.

The Ontario Convenience Stores Association says it's going to cost many retailers up to $2,500 to build new storage units and dismantle the so-called "power walls.''

Quebec's display ban also comes into effect at the end of May, so the limited number of companies that make the required storage units are already backed up, association president Dave Bryans said.

All tobacco products will be covered up in some way by May 31, using shower curtains if necessary, said Bryans. But that won't be enough to protect store owners from over-zealous tobacco enforcement officers, he added.

"We're not here to argue about it,'' said Bryans, adding store owners have given up fighting the merits of the ban itself. "Time has just run out.''

The tobacco ban is a double whammy for store owners who are already losing a quarter of their cigarette sales to smuggled smokes, Bryans said. Instead of chasing down errant store owners who are covering up their power walls with a towel, Bryans said the province should channel that energy into stopping illegal cigarette smuggling.

"Convenience stores won't go out of business because they've covered the tobacco walls,'' Bryans said. "They'll go out of business because our regular customers are getting product 10 times cheaper than we can sell it to them so they're not buying gum, chips, pop or lottery tickets.''

Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said the Liberal government is showing it's completely insensitive to the plight of small-business owners while it ignores the growing illegal cigarette trade.

It's time the Liberals gave store owners some flexibility on the May 31 deadline and turned their attention to stopping the flow of illegal smokes, he said.

"They don't realize that these kinds of convenience stores provide an awful lot of jobs for an awful lot of people,'' Tory said.

New Democrat Cheri DiNovo said the display ban on tobacco products should have been brought in a long time ago. But she said it's wrong to rush it through now without any support for retailers.

The province could replace tobacco advertising with some healthy advertising of its own and boost the commission store owners get from lottery tickets to make them less dependent on tobacco sales, DiNovo said.

"The government can't just leave them out to dry,'' she said. "You can't just do it on the backs of retailers. You've got to help them out.''