Law Enforcement: Shops flouting cigarettes ban

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Attempts to catch out tobacconists who sell cigarettes to children by sending youngsters into shops to attempt to make a purchase may be a waste of time, research suggested yesterday.

Surveys of two schools in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, revealed that large numbers of children under the legal age limit of 16 were buying cigarettes from local shops, with only a small percentage being turned away. But test sales carried out by the local trading standards office - in which a child is recruited to try to buy cigarettes - gave no indication of a problem. Not a single test purchase was made and hence there were no prosecutions.

The surveys, led by paediatrician Dr Mark Bagott from Newcastle University, were conducted at two schools in May 1995 and May 1996. At the first school 39 per cent of girls aged 14 to 15 and 26 per cent of boys were regular smokers. At the second, the figures were 24 per cent of girls and 14 per cent of boys.

A total of 95 per cent of children who regularly smoked bought cigarettes from shops at least once a week. Only 2.5 per cent in 1995 and 6 per cent in 1996 reported ever having had someone refuse to sell them cigarettes. The findings are reported in yesterday's British Medical Journal.