Nine retailers were caught illegally selling tobacco to teenagers in the Auckland CBD over a two-week period, thought to be the highest number in such a short time.
Auckland Regional Public Health Service says the incidents happened in 'controlled purchase operations' (CPOs) it carried out last month.
ARPHS Health Improvement Manager Dean Adam says the figure is thought to be the highest the service has encountered over such a short period, showing illegal access to tobacco remains a serious threat to young people’s health.
It's illegal to sell cigarettes to anyone under 18.
Mr Adam says retailers must ask for ID from anyone buying tobacco who looks under 25, but since July last year the service has identified 29 outlets that have failed to comply with that law.
The most recent nine cases were at dairies, convenience stores, superettes, a petrol station and a vape and hookah store, all in the Auckland CBD area.
But there have also been 17 South Auckland and three East Auckland outlets who have failed to comply in the past 10 months, he says.
ARPHS has carried out controlled purchase operations for more than two decades to identify illegal sales and educate tobacco retailers on the importance of asking for ID.
But Mr Adam says the recent increase in failures shows that education is not enough.
"There is no tobacco licencing scheme in New Zealand, meaning there are no restrictions on who is allowed to sell tobacco and where they can sell it. Tobacco has become as readily available as milk and bread," he says.
"What’s really concerning is that we’ve been carrying out many of our latest CPOs in communities where people are already smoking more and dying earlier than in other parts of Auckland. Cigarettes need to be less readily available to young people in these areas, not more so."
In New Zealand, the average age of starting smoking is just 14.8 years and some will be addicted after just a few cigarettes.
"Every time a retailer sells cigarettes to a minor they’re helping them along that path to addiction and disease," Mr Adam says.
Evidence suggests that if you reach 25 without starting, then you’re never likely to smoke. But around one in seven New Zealanders aged 15 or over are already smoking, with Māori and Pacific youth over-represented.
"What’s really heart breaking is that nearly half of the young people who smoke say they want to stop, and more than 60 per cent have tried in the past year, but only one in five actually manage to stay smoke free. That’s exactly why we target under age sales," he says.
Retailers who flout the law face penalties including criminal convictions and fines ranging from $500 to $10,000. The fine must be paid by the individual who made the illegal sale.