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Many health advocates have mixed feelings about attention being focused on laws banning the sale of tobacco products to children, especially as tobacco companies are so fond of the topic. The industry’s interest lies in underlining smoking as an adult practice, thus reinforcing the forbidden fruit image that helps recruit children to smoking. However, all agree that if there is a law, then at least it should be properly enforced, whereas the industry, while advocating it in public, privately recognises that good compliance is against its commercial interests.

Over more than 3 decades, surveys have been carried out periodically in Scotland to measure the percentage of retailers who knowingly sell cigarettes to children. In the bad old days when industry was king, a steady eight out of 10 shops sold them to appropriately briefed children sent in to test the law. In separate surveys, retailers’ knowledge of the law was tested, too. It was always higher than compliance, though some retailers seemed genuinely ignorant of the law. Huge campaigns were carried out to increase knowledge and compliance among retailers, funded by the industry to try to bribe the government not to tighten up its almost worthless “voluntary agreements” on advertising. As a result, retailers’ knowledge increased; but compliance budged not an inch. Eight out of 10 shops still sold to children.

Perhaps most amazing was the reaction when these illegal sales were publicised. The tobacco industry line on these sales was to belittle the surveys for their use of agents provocateurs, as if that invalidated the results, shoot the (public health) messenger and talk about the near immaculate probity of everyone in the tobacco trade, with just “a tiny minority” spoiling it all. A tiny minority? Perhaps it should not have surprised anyone outside the industry, knowing its lack of integrity with science, that 80% could be so described.

But times have changed. Not only has Scotland’s semi-devolved government toughened the law, raising the minimum age for sales from 16 to 18 years old, but the public perception of smoking has undergone a sea change. The disappearance of virtually all tobacco promotion, from a situation where every retailer’s shop window used to be festooned with colour cigarette ads, together with the abolition of smoking in all public places and a constant decline in smoking prevalence, have together dealt the sort of body blow the industry most fears to the social acceptability of smoking.

The latest survey of illegal sales has found that a third of retailers tested sold cigarettes to underage customers. Rightly, commentators from health agencies said this was still far too high, as did trading standards officers, who have recently visited every cigarette outlet in Scotland to explain the law, itself a welcome addition to efforts to improve compliance. But, as in many of the more complex areas of tobacco control policy, in the absence of constant official enforcement, such practices take time to change and a reduction from eight out of 10 to one out of three retailers offending must be greeted as welcome progress.