Smoking prevalence among young people continues to rise and cigarettes are easily available from many shops. Test sales are used by trading standards departments to try to reduce under-age sales, but it is not known whether this has any real impact on cigarette purchase and consumption. This study aims to evaluate the impact of test sales on purchase and consumption of cigarettes by young people. A survey of two schools in Gateshead, one in the intervention area and one acting as a control was carried out. A series of test sales were targeted to shops within 1.5 km of the intervention school. A questionnaire was administered in both schools among year 10 pupils, age 14-15 years, prior to the intervention and again 1 year later. The outcomes measured were number of successful test sales, reported availability of cigarettes and change in smoking prevalence following the intervention. Some 224 pupils from both schools were surveyed in 1995 and 163 pupils from the new cohort of year 10 pupils in 1996. Prior to the intervention, the levels of regular smoking in the intervention school were 39% for girls and 26% for boys. In the control school these levels were 24% and 14%, respectively. The intervention by trading standards resulted in no purchases and hence no prosecutions, but children reported being able to buy cigarettes with ease from the nearby shops; only three (2.5%) reported sales refused in 1995 and five (5.8%) in 1996. Not surprisingly there was no significant change in smoking prevalence in either school in 1996. This study suggests that test sales may not be effective in modifying cigarette availability to young people and that they are not a reliable measure of access to cigarettes by children.