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New cigarette machines to card buyers
Safety feature helps ensure smokers are old enough to risk lighting up

Japan Times | May 21, 2005
By TADASHI MINOGUCHI

Experimental cigarette machines with age-verification systems recently installed on the rocket-launching island of Tanegashima are reducing the number of juvenile smokers, according to local police.

The machines, developed and installed by a group of domestic tobacco industry bodies, including the Tobacco Institute of Japan, dispense cigarettes only after a customer's integrated circuit card has been scanned and verified.

To obtain an IC card, a person must be at least 20 years of age and send an application to the organizations' operation centers in Tokyo, Tanegashima or in the town of Nakatane, Kagoshima Prefecture. A photo and documents proving date of birth are required.

The experiment began last May and is expected to run until 2008, when all cigarette machines in Japan are expected to have age-verification systems.

According to the promoters, the measure is consistent with the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which is aimed at preventing smoking-related illnesses and requires member nations to step up preventive measures for minors. The convention took effect in Japan earlier this year.

Tanegashima, just south of Kyushu and part of Kagoshima Prefecture, only has a population of 35,000. But it also has 169 cigarette machines, all but eight of which have been replaced by the new type.

About 8,000 of the residents are said to be smokers, and 5,100 IC cards have been issued.

For tourists and travelers to the island, temporary IC cards valid for a week can be issued, and about 800 of them are issued every month.

According to the Tanegashima police station, which answers to the prefectural force, the number of minors taken into custody for smoking fell from 40 in 2003 to 33 the following year. In the first four months of this year, the number dropped to one, down from six in the same period last year.

"If the new models are installed nationwide, it would go a long way toward preventing smoking by minors," a prefectural police official said.

"About 95 percent of the minors taken into custody for smoking purchased cigarettes from machines," he said.

A local tobacconist said he had been worried sick by the sight of youths hanging around vending machines in front of the shop.

But with an IC-based machine now in place, the boys no longer hang out there, he said.

However, the system does have one loophole.

Underage smokers can still buy cigarettes using their parents' IC cards or through adult acquaintances.

An official of Japan Tobacco Inc., the nation's biggest seller of cigarettes, said that underage smoking is a problem that should be dealt with by society as a whole, not just by industry alone.

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