Government and police criticised for not enforcing ban on tobacco sales The government and the police have come under fire for turning a blind eye to the sale of cigarettes to minors after a survey found nearly 80 per cent of outlets were willing to sell them to under age customers. News stands, grocery stores and restaurants were identified as the most likely to violate the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance, which bans the sales of tobacco to those under 18, according to the survey carried out by the Committee on Youth Smoking Prevention. The organisation, which is funded by the tobacco industry, sent about 30 volunteers aged 13 to 17 to buy cigarettes at 1,249 outlets across Hong Kong. It said the study was the first of its kind in the city. Volunteer Carole, 15, said one shopkeeper told her to come back later after she claimed she did not have enough money. The organisation's project manager Li Cheong-lung described the findings as 'outrageous', saying the situation was worse than he had imagined. 'We know some shops do not bother to comply with the law, but we did not expect as many as 80 per cent completely ignored it,' Mr Li said. Of the 1,249 outlets visited by the volunteers, 79.2 per cent were willing to sell cigarettes without checking their ages. Another 24 outlets did so even they thought they knew the customers were under age. The organisation's vice-chairman, Tse Lin-chung, said the survey showed that both the police and the Department of Health's Tobacco Control Office had failed to enforce the law. Under the current law, the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18 is an offence, punishable with a fine of up to HK$25,000. The Tobacco Control Office said last night it had received 47 complaints about the sale of tobacco to minors between January last year and July this year. The office had referred cases to police and there had been nine convictions in the same period, with the highest penalty being a fine of HK$8,000. But the youth organisation said the action was not enough and called for a licensing system for outlets selling tobacco. It also urged a ban on those that failed to comply with the law. Mr Tse said tackling teenage smoking was essential in tobacco control as previous studies had shown that about 70 per cent of young smokers took their first puff between the ages of 10 and 14, with the youngest being four years old. Official figures released last month showed Hong Kong had 839,900 smokers aged 15 and older - accounting for 14.8 per cent of the population. The figures also indicated that 59.6 per cent of regular smokers took up the habit between the ages of 10 and 19, according to the Council on Smoking and Health, the city's top anti-tobacco agency funded by the government. The agency refused to comment on the scientific basis of the study, but its executive director, Wan Wai-yee, said effective measures to combat teenage smoking included a complete smoking ban in all public areas to promote an anti-tobacco culture and an increase in the tobacco tax. 'Teenagers are the most sensitive to prices. They would choose not to smoke if they cannot afford it. It would be more effective to stop teen smoking by promoting a smoke-free culture in Hong Kong.'