COUNCILLORS have vowed to stamp out the illegal sale of tobacco after more than half of shops targeted in a Trading Standards sting were caught selling cigarettes to children.
Of the 21 shops visited in a test- purchase campaign in Midlothian, 11 flouted the law by selling tobacco products to 16-year-old volunteers who had gone in undercover.
Every retailer caught in the sweep has now been hit with a £200 fine, but the local authority has pledged a further crackdown to remedy the “disappointing” rate of under-age sales.
A similar testing scheme in Edinburgh last month revealed that only one shopkeeper out of 16 was guilty of selling cigarettes to minors.
The Tobacco and Primary Medical Services (Scotland) Act 2010 increased the threshold for buying tobacco products from 16 to 18 and gave new powers to issue fixed penalties to retailers who break the law. If retailers consistently fail to apply the law they can be banned from selling tobacco entirely.
On the back of June’s sting, Trading Standards officers have insisted they will ramp up testing of Midlothian tobacco retailers while a warning letter has been sent to all 152 outlets in the county reminding them of their responsibilities when it comes to underage sales.
Councillor Owen Thomson, deputy leader of Midlothian Council, said the high failure rate was partly due to intelligence-led testing and background work by Trading Standards officers.
But he said this was an “explanation rather than an excuse”. He said: “It’s clearly disappointing but it shows it works and that the Trading Standards officers are doing a great job in enforcing their new powers.
“It’s clear that fixed penalties are being issued, which sends a very clear message that if [retailers] continue to fail there’s the potential to ban them from selling at all.”
He explained that trading watchdogs conducted risk assessments on each retailer using pre-existing intelligence before targeting those considered the most likely offenders.
Cllr Thomson said: “There’s an absolute determination to stamp this out to make sure no-one is selling to underage people. If they look under 25 then retailers should be checking for ID.
“On pure numbers it does look a lot higher but given the work that’s gone on in the background it shows Trading Standards officers have been able to focus where they felt it was required the most.”
He added: “Smoking remains one of the biggest contributory factors to Scotland’s poor health record. My message to all local retailers is clear – you must ensure that any customer who looks 25 or under is checked for identification.”
Throughout the whole of 2011, 80 per cent of Edinburgh shopkeepers successfully passed the test-purchase sting.
Councillor Cammy Day, community safety leader for the city council, said the most recent figures were “encouraging” for the Capital. “It demonstrates that our awareness campaigns and rigorous tobacco test-purchasing exercises are getting the message across that traders must be aware of their legal responsibilities when selling tobacco products,” he said. “However, we’ll continue to work with retailers throughout the year to drive down these figures even further.”