What is compliance testing?
'Compliance testing' or 'compliance monitoring' - where volunteer children attempt to buy cigarettes - occurs in most Australian states. Tests are an important part of monitoring whether retailers are complying with legislation which restricts the sale of tobacco to people 18 and over.
In Victoria compliance tests are conducted by local councils. Compliance checks are currently used by a number of local councils; compliance tests were an important part of a project to reduce tobacco sales to children established in the Melbourne's western region in 1999.
How 'compliance tests' work
Volunteer children are recruited by councils. Guidelines recommend children should look about 14-16 and no taller than 175 cms.
Children participate in compliance testing programs with the approval of their parents, are given appropriate training, and are supervised during the process by an adult.
Children involved in the tests are instructed not to 'dress' or 'look' older.
Compliance tests are not an attempt to 'entrap' retailers to do the wrong thing, as children must not lie about their age if they're asked. Children are also not allowed to try and persuade the shopkeeper to sell them cigarettes, use false ID, or say the cigarettes are for someone else, for example their parents. If they're asked for ID children must say they don't have any.
This year in Victoria, a challenge to a prosecution on the grounds that test purchasing had been used to 'trap' a retailer was dismissed by the Supreme Court. Supreme Court Judge Justice Beach noted in his ruling that;
'most reasonable members of the community would take the view that [the test purchase] was a most satisfactory way of attempting to stamp out the illegal sale of tobacco products to minors'.
How widespread is the problem?
In Victoria there have been 11 prosecutions (2 before 1998 and 9 since 1998) against retailers for selling tobacco to children. However, a study by the Department of Human Services and the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer has found that overall, 26% of 4,283 secondary students under 18 surveyed had tried to purchase cigarettes. The percentage increased amongst students in Years 10-12, with 45% of Year 12 students attempting to buy cigarettes. Of those students who had tried to buy cigarettes, almost half (44%) of the students reported that they had never been refused service, and overall, 49% had never been asked for proof of age when buying cigarettes.
Ref: Department of Human Services (2000) Victorian secondary students' access to alcohol and tobacco (unpublished report)
Does compliance testing help?
A number of Australian and overseas studies have found that compliance testing is a factor in reducing the rate of cigarette sales to children.
In Victoria, the Western Region Tobacco Project ('Reducing Sales to Minors') found that there was an 11% increase in retailer compliance with the law following well-publicised prosecutions as the result of compliance tests.
A study on the NSW Centre Coast found before a retailer compliance program began, 31% of retailers sold cigarettes to children. This rate fell to only 19% following a highly publicised prosecution resulting from the compliance checks. Ongoing efforts have resulted in compliance rates of 100%.
Ref: Douglas Tutt, Reducing Adolescent Smoking Rates, Health Promotion Journal of Australia 2000 : 10