Evaluation of retailers' behaviour towards certain youth access-to-tobacco restrictions – 2014


The laws governing tobacco sales in Canada are embodied in the federal government's Tobacco Act and in corresponding provincial tobacco legislation. The federal Tobacco Act sets out prohibitions for the whole of Canada respecting access to tobacco products. Among key provisions, the Tobacco Act makes it illegal for retailers to furnish tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18 in a public place or in a place to which the public reasonably has access and provides for defence of due diligence for retailers who require photo identification to confirm a customer's age. The Tobacco Act also prohibits the promotion of tobacco products except authorized by this Act or its regulations.  Among these authorizations, retailers may post signs at retail that indicate the availability of tobacco products and their price.

Provincial legislatures have also in place their own tobacco legislation prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors. These may stipulate stricter rules for the display of tobacco products than those in the federal Tobacco Act, may require different sign-posting requirements from the federal provision, and may further restrict the sale of tobacco products to youth. Indeed, except for Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, retailers in all other provinces are restricted by provincial law from selling tobacco products to anyone less than 19 years of age.  In provinces where tobacco legislation is stricter than the federal Tobacco Act (e.g. minimum age to access tobacco products), there is no conflict because it is possible for retailer to abide by both sets of legislation by following the more restrictive provincial provision.

One of the original goals of the Federal Tobacco Control Strategy (FTCS, 2001-2011) was to increase retailer compliance with tobacco-sales-to-youth laws to 80%. This goal was first achieved in 2004 and continued to be maintained until 2009, when 84.3% of retailers refused to sell cigarettes to underage Canadians.

Although the FTCS goal has been reached, the current study, conducted in 2014, was designed to evaluate the behaviour of retailers towards youth access-to-tobacco restrictions and determine if national retailer compliance had changed since the last study conducted in 2009. The survey provides a measure of retailer behaviour at the national level and results among cities and provinces should not be compared to one another.

The 2014 study had three specific measurement objectives:

  1. To monitor whether retailers complied with the sales-to-minors provisions of the Tobacco Act and related provincial tobacco legislation, specifically measuring the percentage who refused to sell to the minors attempting to buy and the percentage who checked for identification as required;
  2. To monitor whether or not tobacco products were out of view as required by provincial tobacco laws; and
  3. To check whether e-cigarettes were visible at the point of sale and whether they were offered or made available as an alternative to minors attempting to purchase regular cigarettes.


Research teams consisting of one young Canadian (15, 16 or 17 years old) and one adult (over 19 years of age) were sent into tobacco-selling establishments across 30 cities in each of ten Canadian provinces. Minors attempted to buy a brand-name pack of cigarettes but refused the transaction if retailers appeared willing to sell. If asked their age, teens were instructed to be untruthful. However, they carried no identification and made no effort to disguise their appearance. Adult observers were responsible for the supervision and transportation of minors and for the collection of data relating to the display of e-cigarettes.

A total of 5,539 retail stores were visited. The national results reported in this document reflect the same core 30 cities for which data was collected from 2002 to 2009 (prior to 2002 data were collected in 25 "core" cities).

Unless otherwise specified retailer compliance refers to the percentage of retailers refusing to sell cigarettes during an attempted purchase by a teen test shopper under the legal age to purchase tobacco.

Overview of Results

  • Nationally, in 2014, 84.8% of retailers refused to sell cigarettes to underage Canadians, statistically unchanged from 2009 (84.3%). National retailer compliance with respect to refusing cigarette sales to underage youth first exceeded 80% in 2004 and has continued to exceed for every subsequent study.
  • The percentage of retailers (82.7%) who asked for identification (ID) was statistically unchanged from the result in 2009 (83.2%).
  • Cigarette sales were refused almost 100% of the time when ID was asked for by the retailers and only 20% of the time when ID was not requested.
  • The findings show that compliance with tobacco display laws is high nationally, with 95.6% reporting that tobacco products were out of view. This is consistent with the 2009 result (94.8%).
  • This year, for the first time, observations about e-cigarettes were recorded. The results show that among the subsample who requested to purchase an e-cigarette when the sale of cigarettes was refused, they were also refused the e-cigarette purchase 90.2% of the time.

Results by Minors' Age and Sex

  • In 2014, 15 year olds (94.3%) were more likely to be refused than were either 16 or 17 year olds. However, compliance levels when serving 16 year olds was significantly lower (79.4%) than for 17 year olds (82.9%).
  • Retailers were significantly more likely to refuse the sale of tobacco to female minors (86.7%) than male minors (83.0%).

Results by Clerks' Age and Sex

  • Minors were asked to record the perceived general age of the clerk into one of four general categories; similar age to minor, older than the minor but less than 25, older than 25 but not a senior and senior. Retailer compliance was above 80% for all four age categories of the clerk, with a range of 5.5 percentage-points between the least likely to refuse (seniors, 80.3%) and the most likely to refuse (older than 25 but not a senior citizen, 85.8%).
  • Compliance rates were higher among female (85.9%) than among male (83.8%) clerks. However, male and female clerks were equally likely to ask for ID from underage youth attempting to purchase cigarettes (82.1% versus 83.3%, respectively).

Results by Retailer Type and Time of Visit

  • Among the four classes of trade, compliance was highest among chain convenience stores (89.0%), followed closely by grocery stores (88.0%) and gas convenience stores (86.7%). As in 2009, independent convenience stores (81.0%) were least compliant.
  • Grocery stores where tobacco products are sold in the store (for example, at the courtesy counter) were compared to grocery stores where tobacco products are sold in a separate enclosed area that cannot be accessed from within the grocery store. No difference between the two was observed (with grocery stores selling inside the store at 88.2% compliance, compared to 88.0% among grocery stores where the products were sold in a separate location from the store itself).
  • Tobacco retailers within a 300-metre radius of a school or mall are considered to be "in proximity". The compliance rate between retailers located in proximity to a school and/or mall (85.2%) and those located elsewhere (84.5%) was similar.
  • Compliance based on the time of visit was significantly higher when minors attempted to buy before noon (87.7%) than when they attempted later in the day, with the lowest compliance levels measured during attempts that occurred after 6:00 p.m. (79.8%).

E-cigarette Results

  • Among the subsample of minors (n =1116) who requested to purchase an e-cigarette when the sale of cigarettes was refused, the e-cigarette sale was also refused 90.2% of the time.
  • While there are laws regarding the display of traditional tobacco products, at the time of this study no such laws existed in Canada to address the display of e-cigarettes. E-cigarette displays were observed in about a one-third of all visits (33.4%).


  • Since the last retailer behaviour study conducted 5 years ago, in 2009, there has been no change in the national retailer compliance rate.
  • The percentage of retailers who did not ask for ID and were willing to sell cigarettes has remained high.
  • Although the high level of compliance is encouraging, approximately one in seven retailers did not check for ID and would allow a minor to buy cigarettes.
  • High retailer compliance over time has contributed to the record low cigarette smoking prevalence among youth (6% in 2013 for youth aged 15 to 17 years) under the legal age to purchase cigarettes and a decrease in the percentage of youth accessing cigarettes in retail stores.

For more information or to obtain a copy a copy of the report, please write to the Office of Research and Surveillance, Controlled Substances and Tobacco Directorate, Health Canada, Address Locator 0301A, Ottawa, ON, K1A 0K9, or send an e-mail request to ORS_BRS@hc-sc.gc.ca.

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