JTI’s Jeremy Blackburn joins our panel of C-Store Champions to talk about the support available to prevent tobacco sales to under-18s.

Mandeep Singh, three Premier stores, Sheffield

By taking a strict approach to asking for ID from under-18s, Mandeep has seen a significant drop in attempted underage sales

Alkesh Gadher, Best-One, Isleworth, London

Alkesh has a good relationship with the local authorities, and the police presence at his store helps deter 
kids attempting to buy tobacco

Arjan Mehr, Londis Supermarket, Bracknell, Berkshire

Arjan is a supporter of Trading Standards’ test purchasing and would favour a tobacco sales licence

GUEST CHAMPION: Jeremy Blackburn, JTI head of communications

Jeremy has a wide industry knowledge from working in sales and trade communications as well as in his current role at JTI

How big a problem are underage tobacco sales within the convenience sector?

Mandeep: I wouldn’t say it is massive, but there is a problem. It’s more a case of kids trying their luck at proxy purchasing outside supermarkets, rather than going into convenience stores to purchase tobacco.

Alkesh: It really is a problem for the convenience sector. Our store is right next to a college, so it can be hard. Kids leave school and go to college and suddenly they don’t have a uniform and they look older.

Arjan: It’s patchy - in some places it’s a big problem, less so in others.

Jeremy: JTI’s position is clear: children should not smoke, and JTI is committed to playing a role in ensuring that children do not have access to tobacco products. Selling cigarettes to minors is inexcusable and JTI is taking a lead to ensure that retailers involved in this type of conduct understand the consequences and are accountable for their actions.

What do you think of the current Trading Standards’ test purchasing regime?

Mandeep: Sometimes the kids they send in for test purchasing are dressed up to look older and it feels like entrapment. The council needs to realise which retailers to chase, and which to trust. I once reported a group of kids hanging outside the store to the police and asked for them to be moved on. We then had two test purchases one after the other and when I queried it, they said it was because someone had reported kids outside the store. I had to explain to them that it was me who had made the phone call!

Alkesh: I don’t like it - a lot of people feel that it’s entrapment - but I don’t know what the alternative is.

Arjan: We’re happy with the Trading Standards scheme. Trading Standards send you a letter if you have a successful test purchase. It makes you feel good and you can congratulate the staff member involved.

Jeremy: It is concerning that Trading Standards’ budgets are being cut which, in their words, will also “leave the country open to an influx of dangerous counterfeit goods”.

What set procedures do you have in place for staff to follow when they are selling tobacco?

Mandeep: We have Challenge 25 in place. Our epos system recognises age-related items and it prompts staff to check the customer. If the person looks underage then they know to ask for ID.

Alkesh: We use Challenge 21 and we have till prompts for any age-related products. We keep note of everything in our refusals log and on our epos system so we have documented proof.

Arjan: The general consensus is that if anyone appears to be under 21 then we’ll question them. Judging whether someone is over 25 is a bit over the top in my opinion - you have to have a balance between showing respect for your customers and having procedures in place.

Jeremy: In November 2013, JTI launched a £400,000 initiative to support their retail partners in complying with the law on underage sales. The on-going JTI pilot scheme across the North West of England supports and develops the knowledge of retailers in the vital area of youth access to age-restricted goods. The support available incorporates three core elements: compliance testing; staff training; and strengthening the ‘No ID, No Sale’ campaign materials.

Are you in favour of voluntary test purchasing schemes?

Mandeep: I support voluntary test purchasing, although it needs to be done in the right way. I’m in favour of JTI’s scheme. I’d rather be told ‘in the next two months we’re test purchasing and we want all your stores to be extra vigilant’. Then if I fail they would work with me, not against me.

Alkesh: It’s a great way forward. If you fail a test purchase then you need companies to work with you.

Arjan: It’s a good initiative on JTI’s part. The problem is that the test purchaser has to be over 18 otherwise we’d be breaking the law, but it’s great to see initiatives like this.

Jeremy: JTI’s pilot scheme demonstrates our commitment to youth smoking prevention and its desire to train and develop retailers when it comes to this crucial area. In fact, in a survey of 500 independent retailers, conducted by JTI, 67% of retailers surveyed said that they felt testing was an effective way to improve standards.

Do you think some retailers knowingly sell tobacco to the under-aged?

Mandeep: Yeah, they do. They are actually selling dodgy cigarettes, such as Jin Lings. They’re just getting a quick buck.

Alkesh: I’m sure there are underage students getting hold of tobacco. The retailer will just say that they looked over 18, without carrying out the ID check to prove it.

Arjan: I hate to say it, but they do. It’s a tiny minority of retailers, though. It would be good to have a tobacco sales licence in the same way that we have one for alcohol, and people should be suspended for two or three months for breaking the law.

Jeremy: A high standard of responsible retailing is a fundamental requirement for local shopkeepers. An important component is to make sure that staff do not sell age-restricted products to underage people. A retailer is only as strong as their weakest member of staff, or their weakest moment when it comes to limiting the access of age-restricted products.

How do you try to prevent attempted under-age tobacco sales in-store?

Mandeep: Staff awareness is important. It’s a case of training them and reminding them to stay on top of their game. We’ve got a good team behind us.

Alkesh: Our team has training every four to six months. Trading Standards provided us with a four-page multiple choice questionnaire; we have four or five different tests over the course of the year. We have posters up, too, warning people not to buy age-related products for kids. It does help that we have a good relationship with the local police. They walk past the store about four times a day and that makes people think twice about attempting underage sales.

Arjan: We’ve got Challenge 25 posters up and standard notices saying that it’s illegal to buy tobacco and alcohol if you are underage. We also work closely with the local authorities.

Jeremy: You need to make sure that all staff are properly trained and have the skills to challenge for ID. You can get NVQ-accredited training from as little as £20. Remind staff regularly to check for proof of age - till staff should be given refresher training every few months on the law and their obligations. Think carefully about your store - keep as many age-restricted goods as possible behind the counter, or within sight of the till. Get staff to keep a record of when they have refused sales, and check to see if any of your staff might not be making refusals as it may indicate they need some more training.

Is proxy purchasing a problem and how do you tackle it?

Mandeep: A while ago a customer told me that another customer was proxy purchasing, so the next time I saw that person I told them: ‘You’re giving cigarettes to a minor and I won’t serve you’. Because we have that approach it isn’t a big problem.

Alkesh: It is a problem. Usually a member of staff comes out of the store and says: ‘Look, we’ve seen you on CCTV and you won’t get anything here,’ and they move on.

Arjan: If customers give us a heads- up that they are being hassled by kids outside the store, then we’ll talk to them and they’ll move on. We also work with the local police and every now and then they do a sting in our car park; it’s a good deterrent. They help us because proxy purchasing is bad in itself, but equally because they don’t want bigger problems with these kids further down the line.

Where can retailers go for advice?

Mandeep: You can go to your local council and get a Trading Standards advice pack, which will tell you how to prevent underage sales of a range of age-related products.

Alkesh: The JTI website is helpful, and Trading Standards are willing to give advice.

Arjan: Trading Standards can be very helpful. It’s better if you approach them and ask for guidance, rather than panic when they catch you doing something wrong.

It’s all about keeping up to date with changing legislation. They’ll tell you if there’s a different slant on what’s acceptable or if any procedures or bylaws have changed. Your local Trading Standards are policing you so you want to keep on the right side of them and then they’ll be more sympathetic to the odd mistake.

Jeremy: JTI encourages retailers to visit www.tobaccoretailing.com and www.noidnosale.com to make sure they are up to date with legislation so that they can be the gatekeepers when it comes to sales of age-restricted products.

Where do you think kids are getting tobacco products from? Is it the illicit trade?

Mandeep: A lot of people get cheap cigarettes from local migrant workers, but I’d say the black market is for regular smokers; underage smokers tend to get tobacco through proxy purchasing. They stand outside a local supermarket c-store and get people to buy cigarettes for them. People do it because they don’t want the abuse. These days parents buy them for their kids, too - how are you going to stop that?

Alkesh: I think the illicit trade is targeted more at adults, although kids can get hold of it if they want to. I think the majority of kids are getting tobacco products from irresponsible retailers.

Arjan: There is illegal trade within the pubs - they’re horrendous for it - but I don’t know that the kids are getting it from there. I think with young people it’s more about proxy purchasing. Most of the time the tobacco is being bought by older kids who have just turned 18 and they’re still hanging around with younger kids who are their friends.

Do you think the proposed outlawing of proxy purchasing could make a difference?

Mandeep: Yes, that will definitely help the problem. If people who proxy purchase aren’t directly benefitting and there’s a big risk that they’ll be breaking the law and having to pay a fine, then they’ll be put off.

Alkesh: I think it will make adults more aware that what they’re doing is wrong. The fine will help to deter them, but the main thing will be the fact that they’re breaking the law. At the moment they just think that they’re giving kids a hand.

Arjan: I don’t think it will make much difference. The person who is over 18 who bought the tobacco won’t have broken the law until they hand it over to the child, and it’s very difficult to track down if they’re giving it to someone underage - the kid isn’t going to report them. Unless you’re watching outside the shop 24/7, then how can you prove it?

Jeremy: Making proxy purchasing of tobacco an offence is the right thing to do and is a measure we have supported for a number of years. The introduction of proxy purchasing must be backed up by the appropriate resource to guarantee enforcement and campaigns aimed at preventing access to age-restricted products.