Protecting Young People from Harm: The Role of Age-Restricted Sales


Aug 22, 2013

youth in tanning bed

Local authorities in the UK can benefit from a new tool developed by RAND Europe to measure the impacts and outcomes of local regulations designed to restrict sales of products harmful to children.

During the summer holiday period many families enjoyed a break from the treadmill of school timetables and homework responsibilities. As parents, many of us welcome the opportunity for our children to have a different pace of life and to experience long, fun-filled summer days. However, one of the downsides of this additional free time is that some youngsters may push against boundaries and put themselves in harm's way by experimenting with potentially dangerous items, such as alcohol, tobacco and weapons. Many people assume our children will be protected from themselves by legal restrictions and regulations that prohibit the sale of such products to young people.

Beyond familiar restrictions applied to the sale of alcohol and tobacco, several other products in the UK are limited to those over 16 or 18 years, including fireworks, solvents and offensive weapons (e.g. knives). Enforcement is carried out by local authorities, whose job is to ensure retailers do not sell these products to under-age customers.

This is not an easy task for regulatory staff, despite the presence of laws and regulations. Three main factors combine to make enforcement complex and difficult. First, young people themselves sometimes put considerable effort into defeating the processes. The prevalence of fake ID cards to try to counter age-restriction schemes illustrates this problem. Second, new products are constantly emerging, requiring regulators to develop new ways to ensure compliance. The relatively recent arrival on our high streets of sunbeds and tanning salons, which are prohibited to young people, is a good example. Third, the prevalence of online sales makes it much easier for young people to access products such as alcohol and knives. These challenges must be managed within a wider policy context that seeks to ensure compliance, without imposing undue burdens on businesses.

In recognition of these challenges, the Better Regulation Delivery Office in the UK earlier this year published a Code of Practice relating to the regulation of age-restricted products. RAND Europe was subsequently commissioned to develop a toolkit to help local regulators navigate and better understand how regulation happens in six areas of age-restricted sales: alcohol, tobacco, knives, fireworks, sun beds and gambling. The toolkit allows regulators to consider the processes that they should apply to their work, provides ideas about how they might do things more effectively and offers tips on measuring success.

As parents, we want our children to be protected from accessing potentially dangerous products. Sharing knowledge to improve regulatory processes is a step toward that goal.

Emily Scraggs is an associate director at RAND Europe in Cambridge, working on Evaluation and Impact Measurement.  Her research areas include programme evaluation and public sector governance, from local to international level across Europe.

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