Retailers must toughen up their challenge culture for age-restricted sales, or face steep fines, auditor Serve Legal is warning.

Annual data released by Serve Legal reveals the results of 94,000 tests to assess the challenge culture of convenience stores, supermarkets, bars and online retailers in 2015. Test purchases of alcohol and tobacco were carried out by “young looking” 18 and 19 year olds.

Supermarkets passed 87% of alcohol ID check tests in 2015, while independent stores passed 84%.

However, when it comes to tobacco, just 64% of overall tests were passed this year - down six percentage points since 2010 when it was 70%.

In 17% of visits, no ID was requested and in 9% of cases, the tobacco product had already been retrieved from the gantry or cabinet before ID was requested. 

Convenience stores and newsagents passed just 53% of tobacco ID challenge tests while supermarkets passed 77%, leaving them at risk of failing genuine council-led test purchases in which under 18s are used.

The data seemed to suggest “that tobacco wasn’t being viewed as posing the same level of risk to children as alcohol,” Ed Heaver, director of Serve Legal said.

“If we are to see a reduction in cigarettes falling into children’s hands, retailers must adopt rigorous testing of their age-verification processes and there must be better advice from enforcement agencies so they comply with the law,” he added.

“While the tobacco display ban has removed products from sight, it seems to have failed to result in a clear understanding of the correct time to request ID during the purchase process.”

Wales has the highest pass rate (80%), closely followed by Scotland (76%). In England, there is a marked North-South divide, with retailers in the North passing 51% of tests compared to 75% in the South. 

Local authorities and the police can impose heavy penalties on those caught selling alcohol to children, from on-the-spot £80 fines for individual staff, to substantial fines and licence suspension and revocation. 

The survey also highlighted home shopping as an “area of major concern” with ID checks at the point of delivery found to be “rare”. 

Online retailers have passed just 44% of more than 1,000 age check tests by Serve Legal in the last three years.