The number of English councils carrying out test purchases in retail outlets has slumped in the past year.

According to new findings from the tobacco control survey of trading standards activity in 2013-14, only 74% of councils had conducted test purchase operations with volunteer young people, down from 92% the year before.

In total, 88% of all councils had conducted some form of activity in relation to under-age sales, also down from 95% the year before.

Councils blamed a “lack of intelligence” about where to target testing activity for the fall, along with a “lack of resources”.

Of those councils which did carry out targeted test purchasing activity, four out of five retailers refused the sale.

According to the survey, “small retailers” (including some symbol stores and Eastern European shops) made the highest number of sales to underage people, at 24%.

Petrol station kiosks and national newsagents had the joint second highest illegal sale rate at 20% each, followed by independent newsagents at 16% and off-licences at 9%.

Of the businesses that sold tobacco products to underage test purchasers, 13% were known to have failed test purchases previously.

“The majority of businesses tested during this focused project refused to sell tobacco to the young test purchaser thus demonstrating a responsible approach to protecting young people from harm,” the report said. “This project has identified however that there are still businesses that fail to comply with the law.”

It suggested a tobacco licensing scheme as a possible remedy.