Children 'could spy on tobacco cheats'

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AN ARMY of 'enfants provocateurs' will be launched upon the nation's newsagents if health campaigners have their way, in a drive to stop the sale of cigarettes to under-age children, writes Celia Hall.

Following the example of Liverpool council, Parents against Tobacco and the Health Education Authority want all local authorities to sanction the use of 10- to 14-year-old volunteers to help to stamp out the illegal sales.

Since 1988, when trading standards officers in Liverpool began to work with children under 16 - who would attempt to buy cigarettes - the percentage of the newsagents targeted that were willing to sell to under-age children has dropped from nearly 100 per cent to 3 per cent in six years.

The 'Not for Sale' campaign, launched yesterday, is designed to strengthen the powers of trading standards officers.

Eileen Devaney, a Liverpool councillor, said yesterday: 'There's a significant chance in Liverpool that a child seeking cigarettes may be working with trading standards officers and that's why illegal sales have plummeted in the city.

'Our work benefits honest shopkeepers by making sure they aren't losing out to unscrupulous rivals - and it helps stop children being damaged by cigarettes.'

Surveys show that 250,000 teenagers are sold cigarettes every week but prosecutions are rare. Between March 1992 and July 1993 there were only 180 prosecutions and 145 convictions. The maximum fine is 2,500 but fines rarely exceed 200, campaigners say.