Children recruited to tobacco fight
Children are to be sent in undercover to test whether retailers are selling tobacco products to underage customers.
The initiative is part of a government drive to clamp down on shopkeepers who flout the law on selling tobacco to children under the age of 16.
A new code was launched by public health minister Yvette Cooper on Wednesday.
The code includes a recommendation that local authorities should use "test purchasing" with youngsters under 16 sent into shops to check whether owners are being vigilant.
The guidelines also call for tough action against errant shopkeepers, urging high profile prosecutions and heavy penalties for selling tobacco to under-16's.
Some local councils already operate similar schemes - with massive success in cutting underage smoking.
In Kingston upon Thames, south London, undercover testing using a 13-year-old girl found that 45% of retailers were selling cigarettes to underage children.
After a series of well-publicised prosecutions, that fell to just one in 10 retailers.
The new code is a joint initiative between the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry.
Health Minister Yvette Cooper said: "I welcome this code of best practice which has the full support of the local authorities.
"Too many shopkeepers still sell illegally to children. Any action that can be taken to stop harmful tobacco products falling into the hands of children will reduce the chances of them ever becoming smokers in the future."
Clive Bates, director of the anti-smoking charity Action On Smoking and Health, welcomed the initiative.
He said: "This is an area where the law is routinely broken and some disreputable retailers turn a blind eye.
"The law is so weak that it doesn't actually require local authorities to enforce it, merely to report on what they have done - even if that is nothing at all.
"At the moment, some rogue shopkeepers can make good profits by selling illegally to children reasonably confident that it's a one-way bet and detection and prosecution is a very remote risk.
"Hopefully, this will shift the odds and make it less attractive to sell cigarettes to kids."
Retailers 'need strong push'
Scientists from Imperial Cancer's General Practice Research Group in Oxford, welcomed the tobacco enforcement code as arriving 'not a day too soon'.
In an analysis of 27 recent studies into restricting tobacco sales to children, the researchers found retailers continued to sell them tobacco when simply reminded about the law.
But when penalties were enforced, and retailers were warned or fined, sales to minors dropped.
Dr Tim Lancaster, co-author of the research, said: "Our study clearly shows that the current system of enforcement is woefully inadequate.
"Retailers need a stronger push to prevent them from selling tobacco to children."
The Government has pledged to reduce smoking among children from 13% to 9% or less by 2010.
In 1998 around 11% of 11-15 year olds smoked regularly compared to only 8% ten years before.
Girls in particular are still smoking - in 1988 just one in five (22%) of 15-year-old girls smoked regularly.
By 1998 this had risen to almost one in three (29%).