Apologies if I am repeating anything which has already been posted, or am asking questions which have already been answered.
I frequently get asked to show proof of age to buy alcohol and tobacco products, which I accept is part of what businesses are required to do according to the law (tobacco = legal age restricted product.) However, on a number of occassions I have been asked to provide proof of age for buying tobacco-related products (i.e. filter tips, rolling papers) which are themselves not legally restricted items.
Today I decided to look into this issue, as a matter of personal curiosity.
On the telephone, I was informed by Trading Standards that the sale of tobacco-related products and alcohol-related products are in no way restricted by law. (Therefore a small child may legally purchase any amount of filters and rolling papers, and a retailer may legally sell them.) I was informed that a retailer can have an "age restricted" policy and ask for age authentication beyond the requirements of the law, as a self-imposed condition of sale.
The Cooperative Supermarket was the location of my most recent not-required-by-law ID check. In this instance, I attempted to purchase cigarette filter tips (in addition to other non-age restricted items such as milk, bread etc.)
On the telephone, I asked for and promptly received a copy of the business' "Age Restricted sales policy", which had no mention of tobacco-related products at all. This is the policy in full (I asked for any supplementary information, and was informed there was none):
The Cooperative Supermarket's Age Restricted Sales Policy, in full, as received on 14-09-2010 wrote:
AGE RELATED SALES
As a responsible retailer The Co-operative aims to be a good corporate citizen, acting with the highest integrity at all times. As part of this commitment, we ensure, as far as practically possible, that we do not sell age-restricted goods to underage purchasers.
1. We provide training to all our relevant staff. This highlights the age restrictions in place and their responsibility to prevent sales of age-related products to underage purchasers. When an age-restricted product is scanned at the till, a prompt comes up to tell the checkout operator that the product has an age restriction. If there is any doubt over whether the customer is viewed as being under 25, staff are instructed to ask for proof of age. If this cannot be provided then the transaction must not proceed.
2. In order to ensure our staff are able to recognise valid proofs of age, and in line with government guidelines, we only accept the following forms of identification: a passport, a full or provisional photographic driver’s license or a proof-of-age card carrying the PASS logo.
3. Point-of-sale materials are displayed on our shelves to remind customers that there are age restrictions on certain products.
4. Retailers are required by law not to sell certain classes of goods to persons under a prescribed age. For example, it is illegal to:
· Sell tobacco or cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18 years old.
· Sell alcohol to anyone below 18 years old, with the exception of chocolate liqueurs, which can be sold to those aged 16 and over.
· Sell abusable solvents to any persons under 18 if there is reasonable cause to suspect that the substance or its fumes are likely to be inhaled.
· Sell butane lighter fluid to those under 18 years old.
· Supply videos or BBFC-classified computer and video games to persons below the classification age. These are currently 12, 15 and 18.
· Sell fireworks, including sparklers, to children under the age of 18, with the exception of items such as party poppers, which can be sold to those aged 16 and over.
· Sell National Lottery tickets and scratchcards to those under 16 years old.
· Sell knives to those under 18 years old.
· Sell spray paint to those under 16 years old.
However, as part of our commitment to responsible retailing, in some areas we choose to go beyond the legislative requirements. These areas are as follows:
In addition to alcoholic content and sensible drinking advice (please see ‘Alcohol’ for more information), Co-operative brand alcoholic drinks are labelled with the reminder: 'It is illegal to sell alcohol to under 18 year olds'.
We follow industry guidelines, such as the British Retail Consortium's guide on volatile substance abuse, to help us ensure that we carry out best practice in our stores.
Following extensive research by DTI, the words solvent abuse can kill instantly, flanked by bolts of lightning, have been identified as the most effective means of communication. Here is an example of one of our solvent labels:
By law solvents need only be restricted to persons under the age of 18 if the seller has reason to suspect they will be abused. Our staff are trained always to err on the side of caution on this point by treating abusable solvents in the same way as other age-restricted items.
Computer and video games
Although the system is not legally enforceable, we do not sell computer or video games to those below the PEGI or ELSPA age ratings stated on their boxes. Please see ‘Toys of Violence’ for more information.
As is clear, there is no reference to tobacco-related products in the policy. On the telephone to the Cooperative Supermarket's customer services department again, I spoke to a worker and her supervisor and asked why I had been asked to show proof of age to buy a product which is neither legally age-restricted, nor even on their own "age restricted policy". I asked for a full list of items restricted by the business, and was told I could not get this list. (It must exist: the computer flags up certain items when scanned on the till.)
I made the following points, which were accepted as true by the supervisor:
- there is no mention of "tobacco-related products" on the policy.
- tobacco-related products are not the same as "tobacco".
- tobacco-related products are not restricted by law.
- whilst tobacco-related products are usually used in conjunction with tobacco, this is not necessarily true.
According to the customer service supervisor:
- their legal team had chosen the wording.
- if something was wrong, Trading Standards would have taken action.
Back on the telephone to Trading Standards, I explained that the written policy had no mention of the item or class of items that I was restricted from purchasing. After speaking to his supervisor, I was informed that it isn't even necessary to put the item or class of items on a written policy
. I was told that technically any business could ask for proof of age for the purchase of a mars bar, and have no need to put any such requirement on a written policy.
In other words, a business can arbitrarily ask for proof of age for any product, choosing any age, and have no need to have this in a written policy.
("I'm sorry sir, we need to verify that you are over the age of 45 to purchase this loaf of bread. No, there is no written policy, nor do we require one.")
Now, of course, I understand that a business can refuse to serve a customer at their own discretion, so long as this is not done on the basis of discrimination. But surely arbitrarily designating certain items on the basis of age is age discrimination?
As far as I can see, there would be nothing to stop a supermarket worker from asking for proof of age for anything from condoms to coca cola.
Has anyone else looked in depth into the matter before? Any thoughts?