The UK’s major supermarkets are still selling high-caffeine energy drinks to children, despite having signed up to a voluntary ban on sales to under 16s earlier this year.

More than half (54%) of underage mystery shoppers have been sold energy drinks unchallenged since the voluntary ban was introduced by the supermarkets, plus Aldi, Lidl and The Co-operative Group, in March, new data from Serve Legal reveals.

The news comes a day before the government’s consultation on a new legal age limit for energy drinks sales closes on 21 November.

A major challenge for both the voluntary and statutory ban is the need for 16-year-olds to produce photo ID as proof of age, Serve Legal said.

While 18 year olds may be used to carrying a photocard driving licence, PASS card or passport, 16 year olds are much less likely to carry photo ID as part of everyday life, director Ed Heaver added.

“Eight months into the voluntary ban, test purchase pass rates are understandably low. The ban is not yet required by law and there is confusion in the market around definitions of what constitutes an energy drink, who can and can’t buy them and what kind of identification is required,” Heaver added.

“What’s important is that supermarkets have taken positive early action to test their own performance as responsible retailers.

“Age verification and testing should be an integral part of responsible retail culture and staff training.

“Communication with customers around the ban is also important and some retailers have introduced prominent signage highlighting the new age restriction.

He said he was confident that pass rates would improve as staff became more familiar with the age check process.

“Supermarkets have been successfully operating the Challenge 21 or 25 system to prevent illegal sales of alcohol and tobacco to minors for many years. The energy drinks ban requires the same systems and diligence,” Heaver added.

Legislation around online sales to children must also be enforced, he said.

In nearly 2,000 online test purchases in 2018, 53 of the company’s young mystery shoppers were handed age-restricted goods on the doorstep without being asked for proof of age.

“If the government moves ahead with its ban on selling energy drinks to children, it will at the same time need to set out its commitment to enforce legislation around online deliveries.

“Currently, there is no impetus to stop online retailers and their courier partners from breaking the law by delivering a package containing age-restricted items to a young person without asking for proof of age,” he said.

In August the Department of Health and Social Care launched a consultation on proposals to end the sale of energy drinks to children as part of its national obesity strategy.

The consultation, which closes tomorrow (21 November), does not specify at what age the restriction should be enforced, but it suggests it should apply to those under 16 or 18 years of age, and cover all retailers and vending machines.

Many convenience stores already operate their own voluntary energy drinks bans, with research from the Association of Convenience Stores (January 2018) showing that 53% of c-store retailers said they did not sell energy drinks to under 16s.