The government has given its strongest hint yet that it is planning to introduce a 'negative licensing' scheme for tobacco retailers in the New Year.

Answering a question at Prime Minister's Question Time, Gordon Brown said that "stronger sanctions would be made against retailers who persistently sold cigarettes to children" when it published a new national tobacco control strategy in 2009.

"Tobacco use in this country has fallen from 28% to 22%, and for children it has fallen from 13% to 6%, but that is not good enough," Brown said. He added that a response to the consultation on the future of tobacco control would be published shortly.

However, Brown made no mention of display restrictions, or plain packaging for tobacco products, even when pressed by other MPs.

Instead of agreeing with David Taylor, MP for North-West Leicestershire and chairman of the All-Party Group on Smoking and Health, that these types of measures were necessary, Brown referred to negative licensing, whereby retailers who are believed to be consistently flouting the law on under-age sales are banned from selling tobacco.

Katherine Graham, campaign co-ordinator for the Responsible Retailers Group, said she was pleased by the PM's response to the issue.

"Maybe the PM and his advisors are finally taking notice of what retailers have been saying for months - that these proposals would not reduce youth smoking, but would be terrible for small businesses."