Rampant selling of cigarettes to minors had gone largely unnoticed by the government, an anti-smoking group said yesterday. The Committee on Youth Smoking Prevention found that more than 60 per cent of cigarette retailers in a study in Tseung Kwan O had sold cigarettes to under-age customers this year. The stores did not check for identity cards and displayed signs warning against sales to minors in places where they could not easily be seen, the non-governmental organisation said. There had been six convictions of retailers across the city for breaching the law in the first 10 months of the year, according to the government, with penalties of between HK$500 and $1,500 imposed following 1,200 inspections of cigarette retailers. But the NGO said the maximum penalty for selling to minors is HK$25,000, and court fines were as low as HK$400 last year. Committee chairman Tik Chi-yuen said: 'With such light fines and no one catching offenders, it is little wonder that more young people are slipping up.' Mr Tik, who is a vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, said that since statutory no-smoking areas were expanded to cover indoor restaurants and workplaces last year, the office had overlooked tobacco sales to minors. The government should spend more on educating retailers and the public on the perils of under-age smoking, he said. The three-month pilot prevention project conducted in Tseung Kwan O this year had been a success and should be extended to all 18 districts with government funding, the committee said. Tobacco sales to minors dropped by 30 per cent after volunteers distributed leaflets and handed out Smoking Ordinance-approved warning signs to 85 tobacco outlets from May to August. More shopkeepers asked for the age of under-age customers two months into the campaign, said committee research officer Kan Ming-yue. The group also called for the government to issue licences for tobacco retailers. 'Retailers won't jeopardise their licences by selling to minors, as licences are crucial for business,' said Mr Tik. However, University of Hong Kong professor of public health Lam Tai-hing questioned the effectiveness of prohibiting cigarette sales to young people. 'It is most ineffectual when pitted against other measures such as prohibiting advertisements and increasing the tobacco tax,' he said. The environmental group Clear the Air's anti-tobacco head, James Middleton, said the most effective way of preventing smoking by youngsters was to double tobacco tax to HK$33 a pack. He said it had been shown worldwide that a 10 per cent increase in tobacco tax would lead to a decline of between 4 and 7 per cent in smoking among young people. He also warned young people against tobacco advertising, saying that the 10-19 years age group was increasingly targeted by tobacco companies 'to replace their core product users who are dying off at [the rate of] 7,000 a year in Hong Kong'. Ms Chan, a street vendor in Quarry Bay, said she seldom checked for identity cards when selling cigarettes, but tried not to sell to customers who looked under age. 'People won't show you their ID cards anyway, it's not like I'm the police,' she said. Convenience chain 7-Eleven declined to comment.