Call for child spies to enforce smoking law

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Children should be sent to buy cigarettes to check whether shopkeepers are selling them to the under-16s, doctors said yesterday.

The Royal College of Physicians urged health and local authorities to use volunteer children because doctors believe the resulting prosecutions - with fines of up to pounds 2,500 - will deter other retailers.

A similar project in the US reduced under-age smoking by 50 per cent, according to Dr Alan Maryon Davis, spokesman for the college's Faculty of Public Health Medicine.

Such a programme is now easier to operate following changes in the law and is approved by government departments. It has already been used in Liverpool and Buckinghamshire, and a total of 32 local authorities have each brought at least one prosecution after using volunteer children to buy cigarettes.

The college's call comes as smoking among secondary school children is rising, despite a target in the Government's "Health of the Nation" programme to reduce it. In 1994, 12 per cent of children smoked, against 10 per cent in 1993 when the Government's aim is a reduction to 6 per cent.

Children can be used ethically to make test purchases of cigarettes by using a consent form, signed by parents or guardians, and having adult witnesses to the purchase. By providing the child's birth certificate and photographs of the child as dressed on the day against a height chart, it is possible to provide adequate evidence for prosecution without the child needing to attend court, the college says.

Volunteer children have to be used in a way which avoids entrapment or deliberately misleading retailers. But while the courts in England twice refused to convict on the basis of evidence from volunteer children in 1992-93, none did so in 1993-94. Government guidance in England, Wales and Northern Ireland specifically mentions using children to make test purchases, although the Scottish guidance explicitly rules it out.