An undercover operation by consumer watchdogs has shown a big fall in the number of shops selling cigarettes to kids.

The covert survey was carried out by West Sussex County Council's Trading Standards department using children of staff under the legal age of 16.

The youngsters are monitored as they try to buy cigarettes with staff waiting inside the shops to see if they are challenged about their age.

A year ago 54 per-cent of the shops which were checked sold to an under-age person.

But now a new round of visits to 172 shops throughout the county showed that only 10.5 per-cent were prepared to sell cigarettes to a child.

One shop owner was prosecuted and fined £180 and 11 others were given a formal caution.

Head of Trading Standards Patrick Bligh-Cheesman said: "There has been an appreciable reduction in the number of shops making illegal sales and it is hoped these figures can be improved by further checks."

Mr Bligh-Cheesman has told councillors that a new "proof of age card" being launched in West Sussex schools and colleges will also help shop owners when they serve young people.

A pilot scheme is being launched in 11 secondary schools which the county council hopes will be extended throughout West Sussex by next Spring.

Mr Bligh-Cheesman says cutting cigarettes sales to youngsters is a vital part of meeting targets laid down by the Government as part of national health policies.

He said: "Someone who starts smoking at 15 is three times more likely to die of cancer than someone who starts in their mid-20s."