Three of the UK’s biggest tobacco companies have united in a bid to reduce underage sales of tobacco and other age-restricted goods.

The Responsible Tobacco Retailing scheme, fronted by JTI, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris Limited, follows on from a successful pilot launched by JTI in the North West of England last year.

The pilot used test purchasers aged between 18 and 19 in a bid to assess the general “challenge culture” of stores and identify those which could be “at risk” of failing a genuine underage test purchase.

Test purchases were carried out in 2,500 independent stores across the North West and the scheme resulted in a 7% rise in the number of retailers requesting ID.

The new scheme will see thousands of independent retailers across the UK visited by 18 or 19 year olds who will check the retailers’ adoption of the ‘No ID, No Sale!’ policy.

Stores identified as being “at risk” will be offered free-of-charge, accredited training from former Trading Standards officers.

The accredited training is designed to cover all age-restricted products, not just tobacco, and can count towards a Level 2 NVQ in preventing underage sales.

Tony Allen, managing director of Under Age Sales, which specialises in helping retailers prevent underage sales, said: “First and foremost, the purpose of the Responsible Tobacco Retailing programme is to reduce youth access to tobacco, an issue which all involved parties are in agreement must be tackled.

“We are by no means trying to catch retailers out with the test purchases; far from it – we simply want to identify those that may be at risk of selling tobacco to children and help them take the necessary steps to protect themselves.

“By empowering and enabling retailers to meet their obligations and become gatekeepers to stop under 18s accessing tobacco, we can all work together to raise standards across the board and make a real difference to communities.”

The scheme has been welcomed by the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (NFRN).

Chief executive Paul Baxter said: “NFRN members make every effort to retail responsibly but it’s not easy for shopkeepers to judge the ages of people coming into their stores, so making sure you stay within the law when it comes to underage sales is a constant challenge.

“We therefore welcome this new initiative, which forms part of the Responsible Tobacco Retailing programme, and would encourage any retailer who is identified as at risk to take advantage of the free of charge training.”