Tobacco supplier JTI is investing £400,000 in a pilot test purchase project to tackle underage sales in the north-west.

Launched in October, the Youth Access Prevention campaign focuses on an area covering 4,800 independent retailers, and will see 2,500 of those tested by 18 or 19-year-old buyers at least twice by April 2014. All are being sent educational materials and ‘No ID, No Sale’ PoS to tackle underage sales.

Shops found to be ‘at risk’ of selling tobacco without sufficiently robust proof-of-age processes will be re-tested. If they fail a second time, JTI will give free ‘intervention training’, which, if completed, will earn the retailer an NVQ qualification. JTI will consider training requests from retailers on a case-by-case basis.

If deemed a success, the pilot could be rolled out across the UK with the support of the entire industry, said JTI head of communications Jeremy Blackburn.

Since 2007, the amount of youth smokers claiming they buy tobacco from off-licences and newsagents has fallen from above 50% to 35% or below, but there is still a long way to go.

“The message is getting through to retailers – but not all of them,” said Blackburn.

The first round of testing is now complete but JTI will not reveal the results until April. The pilot was launched in response to the falling number of test purchases being carried out by Trading Standards.

Blackburn added: “The Government’s first step is always regulation – our view is that there’s another way. Let’s look at training and standards.”

The north-west was chosen because 15% of 14 to 17-year-olds in the region still smoke, despite a fall in recent years.