Five years ago Portsmouth City Council was confronted with a worse than UK average failure rate for store failing underage purchase of cigarettes and alcohol test purchases. The city Trading Standards team were finding that 33% of tested retailers were not operating effective due diligence programmes and decided that it was time to take a new approach. By 2011 the failure rate in the city has been improved dramatically to just 1.6%, remarkable!

I spoke to Adam Macklin, community trading standards officer responsible for age related sales and tobacco control to discover how this was achieved. He said that retailers perceived that the traditional Trading Standards approach was to weld a big stick with any errors being punished. He felt that the fear of authority that many retailers had needed to be replaced by a partnership approach. This approach has led to a free flow of information to and from retailers.

Mr Macklin says “Selling alcohol and cigarettes to under 18 year old has negative effects on the community that the failing store serves. To overcome this the Portsmouth Trading Standards team have introduced a three part programme that helps retailers operate within the law. First there is our Preventing Underage Sales Tool Kit. The second part is Proxy Watch that enables retailers the opportunity to report any issues of associated with these problems. The third element is ensuring Challenge 25 is used by all age restricted product retailers.”

The Preventing Underage Sales Tool Kit offers training for retailers and their as well as a best practice guide. The package is available to all stores in Portsmouth and guides retailers the issues that they need to know to operate an effective Due Diligence policy. This includes how to make sales within the law, how to use proof of age evidence and what to ask for and what evidence needs to be kept. It training also covers the impact on the community that the store serves when things go wrong.

The Proxy Watch scheme allows retailers to report issues of agent/third party purchasing or where under 18 year olds are making it difficult of a store or its customers to go about their normal business. The reports are used to create a hot spot map to enable Police and other agencies can actively targets the problem areas. In its first year Proxy Watch had over 150 calls and this has been dramatically reduced so that there have only been 20 reports this year.

The third part of the City’s strategy is to ensure that all alcohol and tobacco retailers use Challenge 25 as their guide to knowing who to ask to see proof of age before selling a restricted product.

While Trading Standards is the enforcement agency Portsmouth City Council have taken the view that advice, guidance and training is the correct foundation to assist retailers to sell age restricted products legally. A first failed test purchase is most like be met by an offer to undertake the programme rather than a visit to court. As the remarkable reduction in test purchase failures bares witness to this approach has borne fruit. Of course for retailers who fail to take note of the training and repeatedly offend the penalty is likely to be more severe.

The key beneficiaries in Portsmouth are the council tax payers, businesses, the local economy and the community as a whole. For retailers it is the knowledge that Portsmouth Trading Standards Officers are real partners and allies for them and their business.