Introduction

As a retailer, you will know that underage sales are a difficult and potentially confusing area for you and your staff. If you try to firm and refuse to sell to people who you believe are underage, this can sometimes result in abusive and aggressive behaviour towards you and your staff. 

Most retailers are responsible people and try to comply with the legislation that restricts the sale of certain products to young people. However, they may encounter difficulty in establishing the age of young people.

If an age restricted product is sold to someone underage, both the retailer and the person who sold the age restricted product in the shop can be found guilty of an offence. It is no defence for a retailer or a shop assistant to say that they did not know that the buyer was underage. The penalties for selling to someone underage are severe – if convicted the person can be fined up to £5000 and/or receive up to 6 months imprisonment. Selling alcohol to under 18’s may also put your licence to sell alcoholic liquor at risk. Also with tobacco regulations fixed penalty notices of £200 can be issued which can then escalate to a tobacco sales banning order being enforced if sales occur and continue to occur to under 18 year olds.

The law is enforced in the following ways: 

By providing advice and education to traders and consumers, including parents, teachers and young people. Licensing Standards and Enforcement Officers provide guidance and carry out compliance visits. By investigating complaints made by consumers or by traders. By using young volunteers, in appropriate cases, to attempt to buy age restricted products. They behave as ordinary customers, under the supervision of a Trading Standards Enforcement Officer or Police Officer. 

Cigarettes and tobacco products

        > It is illegal to sell cigarettes or any other smoking related product to anyone under 18. 

        > If you are not sure that the customer is over the age of 18, ask for proof of age. 

        > If you are still not sure, refuse the sale. 

        > Remember that the law forbids all tobacco sales to children. 

        > If a child says, “they are for my mum”, that makes no difference. 

        > It is illegal to break a pack and sell cigarettes from it to anyone, child or adult. 

        > Make sure the warning on the packet is in English. 

        > Make sure the warning notice “It is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18” can be seen clearly at all times.

Other Offences 

        > You in the course of a business displayed or caused to be displayed tobacco products or smoking related products in a place where tobacco products are offered for sale. 

        > You displayed or caused to be displayed prices of tobacco products or smoking related products in breach of a requirement contained in the regulations. 

        > You failed to display a notice containing the following: “It is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18” in a premise where you carry on a tobacco business.

Offences relating to the Register of Tobacco Retailers 

        > You are an unregistered person carrying on a tobacco business. 

        > You have carried on a tobacco business at premises other than those noted in the Register. 

        > You failed to give notice of a change of your name or address or that you are no longer carrying on a tobacco business at an address noted in the register within 3 months of the date of change’. 

        > You have breached a tobacco retailing banning order or ancillary order. 

        > You failed to display a notice stating that your premises have been specified in a tobacco retailing banning order.

What steps can I take to ensure that staff do not sell to persons who are underage? 

All staff, particularly new staff, should be trained by you to understand the requirements relating to sales of age restricted products. Record training given to your staff in a training record book. This is good practice. Ensure you give a copy of the record of training to the employee. Records of training should be retained in a safe place so that you can show the enforcement agencies (Police, Trading Standards, and National Lottery) that you take age restricted sales seriously. Clearly display the required notices for tobacco products, fireworks and spray paint devices and the voluntary notice for alcohol. These give the ages at which it is legal to purchase these products. Wherever possible, encourage your staff to speak to you if they are in any doubt over a sale. You and your staff should always be cautious when children come into your shop dressed in school uniform. Where the age restriction is 18 years of age (cigarettes and tobacco products, alcohol, fireworks, 18 classification videos and games, cigarette lighter refills), we would advise that you never sell to a person in school uniform. Record any refusals made by you or your staff in the Refusals Book.

Do staffs have to be a certain age to sell age restricted products? 

It is an offence for any staff under the age of 18 to sell alcohol, unless they are under direct supervision from an adult who is aged 18 years or over. If any of your staff are under 16, it is an offence for them to sell National Lottery tickets. It is an offence for anyone under 16 to be employed in the handling of explosives including fireworks. An adult must appropriately supervise staff aged between 16 and 18 working in an explosives store.

Is it better for my staff to be the same age or older than the age restriction for the product? 

For alcohol and National Lottery tickets, they must be at least the same age as the minimum age restriction. To handle explosives including fireworks employees must be at least 16 and if under 18 must be supervised by an adult. Wherever possible, your staff should be old enough to buy the product they are selling. There could be a problem if, for example, your staff member is only 16 and a person wants to buy a product where the minimum age restriction is 18. Our advice in this example is that you should train your staff to pass the sale over to another member of staff who is at least 18 years old. That person is likely to make a better assessment of the age of the person making the purchase.

Can computer-till technology help when selling age restricted products? 

Yes. Modern computer till scanning systems can be set up with safety interlocks for age restricted sales. This means that the till displays a prompt requiring confirmation that the potential buyer is of 

the required age. The sales assistant then has to type in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as appropriate, because the computer till will not proceed until they have responded. Therefore, the sales assistant has time to stop and assess the age of the customer before selling.

Are there any other measures that can help reduce underage sales? 

You may wish to have the barcodes on age restricted products covered by a label (for example indicating “Check Age”) which will need to be removed before the sale can take place. Again, this means that sales staffs have time to stop and assess the age of the customer before selling.

What practical steps can I take as a responsible retailer to reduce volatile solvent deaths? 

Never sell cigarette lighter refills to anyone under 18 years of age. Never sell to a person aged under 18 years of age if they are buying more than 2 or 3 of the same item, or making repeated purchases over a short period of time. Be suspicious if the person seems drunk or has the smell of solvent on their clothes or breath. Be alert to spots and sores around the buyer’s mouth and nose. Look out for excessive giggling or rowdy, silly or strange behaviour. If in any doubt, do not sell the substance being requested by the customer. Abuse of solvents can be a matter of life or death for the young person concerned. So, be vigilant at all times when selling solvents.

Alcoholic drinks and the law 

All premises that sell alcohol must have a premises licence holder. There must also be a designated premises manager, who must hold a personal licence. All sales of alcohol must be authorised by a personal licence holder. 

It is an offence to sell alcohol to anyone under 18. It is an offence for anyone under 18 to attempt to purchase alcohol. It is also illegal for anyone over 18 to purchase alcohol on behalf of someone less than 18 years. Staff under the age of 18 must not sell alcohol without the sale being authorised by a trained member of staff who is over 18, or a personal licence holder. All premises selling alcoholic drinks must have a minimum Challenge 25 policy, and their staff must be trained to comply with it. Anyone who looks less than 25 must be asked for one of the three allowed forms of identification, a current passport or photo driving licence, or a form of identification containing the PASS logo. If you are still not sure, refuse the sale. Where it is proved that alcohol is sold to an underage person, the police will charge both the person who sold the alcohol and the premises licence holder. The police may also apply for a review of the premises licence and personal licence. The licensing Board may then apply various sanctions on these licences, the most extreme of which is revocation of the licence. Staff must be trained for a minimum of 2 hours by a personal licence holder and a record of that training kept at the premises. The premises is required by law to display a notice stating it is an offence to attempt to buy alcohol by a person under 18, or to buy alcohol for such a person. 

We would advise you to follow the steps below:

        > If you have doubts during a sale of an age restricted product, always check with the manager. 

        > If you are unsure as to the buyer’s age, always ask for proof of age – for example a driving licence, a passport or a proof of age card.

        > Calculate the age of the person from the date of birth given. 

        > Always look at the document or proof of age card to see if the photograph looks like the person in front of you.

        > Always check the card has not been tampered with, or altered. Feel the card to ensure there are no ridges on, or anything stuck to the card.

        > Never accept a note from a parent or guardian of an underage buyer authorising them to purchase on their behalf.

        > Take special care during busy periods.

        > Always be alert and remember to stay calm, polite and understanding even when put under pressure to sell age restricted products to persons whom you believe are underage.

        > Be aware that if you sell to an underage person either under pressure or without regard to the person’s age, you, as well as the owner/licensee, may be liable to a criminal conviction and receive large fixed penalties for you and your employer.

        > If you sell an age restricted product to an underage person, you may find that your employer terminates your employment.

        > If an underage sale goes ahead unchallenged by you, you could receive large fixed penalties for you and your employer.

If you think the buyer is underage, politely refuse to sell the product and provide them with an explanation.

Remember ‘No Proof - No Sale’. 

Ask for ID. 

If the potential buyer becomes aggressive or violent towards you after you refuse to sell, speak to the manager immediately so that the person can be escorted from the shop or the police called. If you have CCTV in the shop, ensure that it is switched on at all times.


If the product is age restricted, assess the age of the potential buyer by using the following guide: 

        > Look at the potential buyer and assess their size and age. 

        > Are they wearing school uniform? 

        > Do they appear to have friends waiting outside? 

        > Do they appear nervous or worried about making the purchase? 

        > Are they making eye contact with you, or are they trying to look away? 

        > Look out for them buying alcopops or the strongest drink in the shop. 

        > Are they trying to act older at the counter when they are with friends who are clearly underage for the product in question? 

        > Do they ask for the price of single cigarettes? (It is illegal to sell single cigarettes).

Why do I have to do all the extra things recommended by this Guide? 

        > It is good practice and as a responsible retailer you do not want to sell to people who are underage.

        > It supports the health and wellbeing of young people. 

        > You may be able to avoid prosecution if you can show that you trained your staff properly. The various pieces of law state that if you took “all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence” you may be able to establish an effective defence in court.

What does “taking all reasonable precautions and exercising all due diligence” actually mean?  It means that you should:

        > Ensure that your staff are properly trained (backed up by records of training).

        > Ensure that you and your staff always complete the Refusals Book entry when a sale is refused. 

        > Ensure that you and your staff go on training courses about underage sales and,  if possible, that you utilise computer till prompts.

        > Ensure that you continue to monitor your staff to check that they are looking out for buyers who are underage, and refusing to sell to them.

        > Ensure that training records are kept up to date.

Dealing with difficult customers

When you are facing a difficult situation in the shop, you should be firm and polite and attempt to calm the situation so that the confrontation is not made worse.

It is not easy to stay calm and polite and be understanding in the face of abusive and aggressive behaviour

How do I keep calm in difficult situations? 

        > Know about the law and these guidelines. 

        > Have clear information available about restricted products and ages. 

        > Keep your voice calm, your hands open and maintain eye contact. 

        > Do not respond to verbal abuse – try to ignore any insults. 

        > Stick to your reasons for not being able to sell. 

        > Try to ensure that the potential buyer understands why the sale has been refused.

How do I handle aggressive/abusive behaviour and language from potential buyers?

        > Do not allow yourself to be provoked. 

        > Do not interrupt or shout back. 

        > Keep a non-threatening distance. 

        > Relax your own body language. 

        > Use slow movements and lower your voice. 

        > Be consistent as to why you are not going to sell the product to them. 

        > Emphasise that it is the same for everyone, and that you are not picking on him or her. 

        > Avoid remarks that annoy the aggressive person as this can provoke a reaction and make the situation worse. 

        > Tell them when their behaviour is unacceptable, and give reasons why the behaviour is unacceptable. 

For example:

“I don’t want you shouting in my shop. My other customers will get upset”. 

“I want you to stop yelling at me. It won’t make any difference to the decision”. 

“I can’t serve you. I’d be breaking the law”.

        > Know your limits – you may need help and support from other members of staff in dealing with the situation.

        > Recognise that matching their aggression with your own (even if provoked) will probably not help.

        > Recognise that dealing with hostility and aggression is difficult for all members of your staff. 

        > Discussing how potential incidents should be handled can be helpful. Similarly, discussing incidents that have already occurred can be beneficial.

Notices required by law

Tobacco and tobacco products

A notice displaying the statement:

IT IS ILLEGAL TO SELL TOBACCO PRODUCTS TO ANYONE UNDER THE AGE OF 18

shall be exhibited in a prominent position so that it is readily visible to people purchasing cigarettes, cigars, rolling tobacco etc. The notice must be A3 size and each letter must be 36 mm high or more.

Fireworks

A notice displaying the statements:

IT IS ILLEGAL TO SELL ADULT FIREWORKS OR SPARKLERS TO ANYONE UNDER THE AGE OF 18 

IT IS ILLEGAL FOR ANYONE UNDER THE AGE OF 18 TO POSSESS ADULT FIREWORKS IN A PUBLIC PLACE

shall be displayed in a prominent position in any shop selling fireworks. The notice shall be A3 size and each letter must be 16 mm high or more.

Spray Paint Devices

A notice displaying the statement:

IT IS ILLEGAL TO SELL A SPRAY PAINT DEVICE TO ANYONE UNDER THE AGE OF 16

shall be exhibited in a prominent position where the statement is readily visible to people purchasing the spray paint devices. The notice shall be A4 size and each letter must be 13 mm high or more.

Alcohol

A notice displaying the statement:

It is an offence for a person under the age of 18 to buy or attempt to buy alcohol on these premises

It is also an offence for any other person to buy or attempt to buy alcohol on these premises for a person under the age of 18. 

Where there is doubt as to whether a person attempting to buy alcohol on these premises is aged 18 or over, alcohol will not be sold to the person except on production of evidence showing the person to be 18 or over.

can be exhibited in a prominent position where the statement is readily visible to people purchasing the alcoholic liquor.

Alcohol – code of practice for off-sale premises

Licensees must undertake training in accordance with the Licensing Boards current requirements. Licensees must ensure that all staff are trained in off-sale specific matters as required by the Licensing Board, to include:

        > Offences and liability in relation to sales including under-age and agency sales and social consequences thereof; 

        > Proof of age schemes; ‘

        > No proof no sale’; 

        > Refusing a sale; 

        > Using a refusals book; and 

        > Any other topic which the board may from time to time deem necessary.

Licensees should consider adopting an over 21 policy. If someone looks younger than 21 then they must provide secure photo identification (passport, driving licence or ID card with the pass hologram) from ALL young persons and should operate a "no proof no sale" policy.

Licensees should ensure all age related signage and agency sale signage is displayed in a prominent place and also at the point of sale.

Licensees should ensure ANY person attempting to purchase any alcohol of the type favoured by young people is questioned and satisfies the seller that the items are not being purchased for a person/persons under age prior to permitting the sale to proceed.

Licensees should consider the use of a "refusals" book and keep it up to date. The refusal book could be produced for inspection by Police officers on request.

Where possible, licensees should consider displaying alcohol which would be attractive to young people either behind the till counter, or in the immediate vicinity of the till counter or as close to the till counter as practicable in relation to the size and layout of the premises. This may deter the young people from being bold enough to ask for the alcohol.

Licensees should not support any irresponsible promotions designed to encourage consumption of products that are attractive mainly to younger patrons. For example, advertising campaigns/posters depicting young people having fun drinking or which promote products that are given names to make the product seem "sexy". It is not recommended that they offer disproportionate free gifts of alcohol or other items dependant on the quality of these products purchased.

Alcohol sales to intoxicated persons

It is illegal to knowingly sell alcohol, or attempt to sell alcohol, to a person who is drunk. It is also illegal to allow alcohol to be sold to someone who is drunk.

Military ID

The Government recommends that military ID cards can be used as proof of age. Guidance on how to identify these cards, including examples of British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force ID cards was published in the Home Office False ID guidance in July 2012. There are a number of different cards and so understanding what is, and is not, a legitimate card can be confusing. 

If you trade near a military base, or have a large number of service personnel as customers, then we recommend you should familiarise yourself with the types of military ID used in your area. There are separate ID cards for each of the armed forces (army, navy and air force). 

Military ID cards are held by all serving personnel, including 16 and 17 year olds, so you must check the details on the card, including date of birth and expiry date. There is no requirement for these cards to be signed.

Other Foreign ID

You may have customers that seek to prove their age with non-UK passports or National Identity Cards. You can expect that all EU and most other international passports will carry the following distinguishing features:

        > Paper that does not reflect ultraviolet light or whose fluorescence is easily distinguishable from the blue used in commonly available fluorescent materials; 

        > Watermarking on the biographical data and visa pages; 

        > An intricate, repetitive pattern as the background design on each page; 

        > A background design on the biographical data page that is different to the design(s) on other pages in the passport; 

        > Ultra-violet fluorescent ink on the biographical data page.

If you have suspicions about the validity of any foreign passport or ID card you can refuse the sale, but UK equality legislation requires that you do not impose a policy of refusing all foreign passports or identity cards.

The following table, showing penalties for selling, supplying, offering to supply and hiring (as appropriate to the legislation) products to persons under certain ages, is designed to guide you through the requirements of the law and assist in compliance.

Product
Age restriction
Maximum penalty
Tobacco products
18 and over 
£2,500 
Lighter refills containing butane
18 and over 
£5,000 and up to six months' imprisonment
Sprits
18 and over 
£5,000 and forfeit of licence
Wines 
18 and over 
£5,000 and forfeit of licence 
Beers 
18 and over 
£5,000 and forfeit of licence 
Ciders 
18 and over 
£5,000 and forfeit of licence 
Alco-pop 
18 and over 
£5,000 and forfeit of licence
Liqueur confectionery
16 and over
 £5,000 and forfeit of licence

If there are two sales in a short period, a Review of the premise licence may be called for and the Licensing Authority may revoke the licence.