Outside of a hard core of teenage rebels, schoolchildren are generally less likely to smoke or drink than 10 years ago. And while the retail industry has nothing to be particularly proud of yet on underage sales, it seems that youngsters are finding it increasingly difficult to get hold of age-restricted products in a store.

These conclusions can be drawn from the latest survey into smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in 2008, carried out for the NHS Information Centre.

The study quizzed 7,798 pupils aged 11-15, across 264 schools, during the autumn term 2008 and shows that, contrary to public perception, the incidence of smoking, drinking and drug use from children aged 11-15 is actually in decline.

A third (32%) of pupils have tried smoking at least once (down from a peak of 53% in 1982), although only 6% of pupils admitted to smoking 'regularly' (defined as at least once a week). This is the same figure as was recorded in 2007 and is far below the peak of 13% recorded in 1996, as well as being well inside the government's own target of 9% by 2010.

Girls are more likely to smoke than boys, and the prevalence of smoking increases with age while 14% of 15-year-olds say they smoke at least once a week, the figure is less than 0.5% for 11-year-olds.

The October 2008 survey also reveals that 39% of pupils said they found it difficult to buy cigarettes from shops, a marked increase on the 24% recorded in 2006. This improved figure is undoubtedly helped by the raising of the minimum legal purchase age to 18 in 2007, but can also be taken as evidence that stores are improving their record on refusing cigarette sales to youngsters admittedly with a long way still to go.

Among regular youth smokers, the proportion who usually buy 'from shops' has fallen dramatically, from 78% in 2006 to 55% in 2008. The same group of youngsters are also more likely to buy cigarettes 'from other people' than ever before (52% saying so in 2008, compared with the previous peak of 42% in 2004).

In other words, about as many pupils buy from friends or relatives as buy from stores. This makes the government's persistent refusal to consider outlawing proxy purchasing, while at the same time loading more onerous legislation onto retailers' shoulders, look increasingly out of step.

Even anti-smoking group ASH and Cancer Research UK who are among the main flag-carriers for the tobacco display ban accept that there is a major anomaly here.

In the Cancer Research UK Smokefree Action briefing to accompany the Health Bill, it states: "We agree that it is inconsistent that, while a retailer can be penalised for selling to underage smokers, 'proxy purchasers' face no penalties. If, on further investigation, it is found to be effective and feasible to do so, proxy purchasing could be made a criminal offence."

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