Tobacco manufacturer JTI has sponsored a pilot test purchasing scheme to help retailers in the north west tackle under-age tobacco sales.

The £400,000 programme was carried out by test purchasing company Serve Legal, which carried out more than 6,000 test purchases over eight months.

The scheme, which visited a random selection of 2,500 independents in towns and cities including Blackpool, Manchester and Liverpool, saw retailers improve their performance between visits.

The first set of test purchases found 52% of retailers at risk of selling to under-age people – but the second set of visits saw a 7% improvement to 45%.

“At risk” means retailers who did not ask potentially under-age shoppers for ID. The pilot offered any retailers found to be “at risk” free in-store training delivered by Under Age Sales, a social enterprise which specialises in helping retailers prevent under-age sales.

Serve Legal uses 18 and 19-year-old mystery shoppers to test whether shops are at risk of selling to under-age youngsters.

The company’s director Julian Sargeson said: “Being chosen to play a key role in this landmark project is testimony to the strength of our visitor network and service provision. Visiting that many sites within such a tight timeframe is no easy feat. We are delighted with the results, and hope the success of the pilot shows just how effective independent testing can be in tackling under-age sales.”

Tom Hirons at JTI said: “We chose the north west as it has historically had a higher number of under-age smokers. And while this number is declining, we wanted to ensure it continues to fall as quickly as possible. That’s exactly what we set out to achieve with this trial, and we are very happy with the results.”