Almost 40% of retailers illegally sold electronic cigarette products (e-cigs) and vaping liquids to children and young people in the first national test purchase operation since the practice was banned.

A total of 634 compliance tests were conducted between January and March 2016 by trading standards, which found that compliance with the age-of-sale aspect of the Nicotine Inhaling Products (Age of Sale & Proxy Purchasing) Regulations 2015 was “disappointingly low”. Illegal sales were made on 246 occasions, giving a non-compliance rate of 39%, according to the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI).

The results were identified during the first national test purchase operation by Trading Standards, supported by the Department of Health and managed by the CTSI.

Businesses tested included independent pharmacies, specialist e-cigarette suppliers, discount stores and markets as well as traditional tobacco retailers.

Leon Livermore, CTSI chief executive, said: “More than 2.5 million adults use electronic cigarettes and evidence suggests the products are now the most popular quitting aid for smokers in England. And these products are being sold in a wide variety of retailers and many of them will have little or no experience of challenging age restricted sales.

“Regular use among children is relatively rare but children’s awareness of, and experimentation with electronic cigarettes, is increasing. However, trading standards teams play a frontline role in preventing children from obtaining e-cigarettes and nicotine refills, just as they do with traditional tobacco products. They provide guidance to help retailers comply with the law, but will not hesitate to take enforcement action where it is appropriate to do so.”

Nicola Blackwood, public health minister, said: “There was strong support for this measure from businesses when they were consulted and so, as the school holidays are upon us, this is a timely reminder of their obligations under these regulations not to sell nicotine products to under 18 year olds. We will continue to work with trade associations and trading standards to provide practical advice to businesses of all sizes and to promote compliance amongst the wider retail community.”

The region with the highest rate of illegal sales to persons under the age of 18 was the North West, where 59% of test purchases were illegal. The East Midlands (46%), the North East (37.5%), South West (36%) and the Eastern (35%) region also scored highly. London had the lowest rate of illegal purchases of the regions tested at 19%.

A variety of products, from e-liquids and disposable e-cigarettes to rechargeable products, were purchased, with prices ranging from £1 to £20. The most frequently purchased products were e-liquids. Where an illegal sale was made, further advice and guidance were given to help the business achieve compliance.