Three in five independent retailers are aware that adults are buying cigarettes for children, but feel powerless to prevent them as it is not against the law.

The revelation, part of a comprehensive study by the Tobacco Retailers Alliance (TRA), which represents 26,000 UK independent retailers, demonstrates the pressing need to outlaw the proxy purchasing of tobacco and address the real routes of supply to under-18s.

Darlington independent retailer John Abbott said the government should stop wasting time on "unproven gimmicks" such as banning tobacco displays and focus on issues that would help reduce youth smoking.

Mahendra Jadeja, who runs a newsagents in London, said proxy purchasing was a "massive problem" for retailers.

"It's ridiculous that there is a law prohibiting the proxy purchasing of alcohol, but not of tobacco," he said. "It's creating a world of confusion and problems for retailers and their staff."

Shadow Health Minister Mike Penning, who has tabled amendments to strike the display restrictions from the Health Bill and make proxy purchasing illegal, told Convenience Store: "Rather than pursue a policy for which supportive evidence is lacking, we must consider meaningful alternatives. I believe that the proxy purchase of tobacco should be a criminal offence, just as it is with alcohol. It's ludicrous the government should change the law on tobacco sale without ensuring purchasing on behalf of a minor is illegal."

The TRA survey also found that 90% of retailers believed the government had not listened to their concerns over banning tobacco display, while 56% feared it would lead to a rise in crime.