Almost one in five retailers illegally sold cigarettes to children, the results of a test purchase operation conducted by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) have revealed.
The investigation forms part of a report - entitled 'Enhancing Local Tobacco Control: preventing underage sales of tobacco' - which looks at the effects of underage tobacco sales and measures to prevent it.
Retailers that took part in the test included those located in nine regions of England - the south west, south east, central England, north west, north east, east of England, east Midlands, London and Yorkshire and the Humber.
The operation comprised of 352 individual test purchases across all regions.
Although most retailers complied with legal tobacco-selling guidelines, it was found that 63 illegal sales were made, with smaller grocery stores (24 per cent), petrol stations (20 per cent) and newsagents (16 per cent) most likely to sell tobacco products to those aged under 18.
Leon Livermore, chief executive of the CTSI, said: "More than 200,000 children aged 11 to 15 start smoking each year and evidence shows these younger smokers are more likely to become heavy smokers with higher levels of dependency and mortality.
"Trading standards teams play a frontline role in preventing children from obtaining cigarettes and developing a habit that is detrimental to their health and a costly burden to the health service.
"Local trading standards services can and often do prosecute offending retailers, but they also issue warnings and provide guidance to retailers, as part of the national drive to stamp out smoking."
The research showed that the poorest performing region was London, with almost one in five illegal sales, while around one in ten retailers in the south east and south west sold tobacco products to people aged below 18.
Public health ministers are urging local authorities to work together in creating a smoke-free generation and help to protect children from tobacco.
Virtual College has joined forces with the CTSI to offer TradeSimple - a range of online training resources suitable for businesses of all shapes and sizes covering topics including fair trading, product safety and age-restricted goods. To find out more, please visit: http://www.virtual-college.co.uk/vcproducts/trade-simple.aspx