Japanese Cigarette Machines to Say 'No' to Minors
TOKYO (Reuters) - In Japan's vending-machine culture, where anything from batteries to pornography can be had for a few coins and the push of a button, retailers have long agonized over how to keep adults-only items out of children's reach.
The tobacco and vending machine industries now plan to use advanced electronics to make sure only those legally old enough to take a puff can take advantage of Japan's ubiquitous cigarette machines.
The Tobacco Institute of Japan and two other industry groups said Monday they would launch a test program next spring in a town outside Tokyo with cigarette machines that would require all would-be purchasers to insert an integrated-circuit (IC) card encoded with their date of birth before making a sale.
``There have always been worries about minors buying cigarettes, but with the development of IC card technology, now we can do something about it,'' said Katsushi Ono, managing director of the Tobacco Institute of Japan.
For one year starting on April 1, the 160 cigarette vending machines in Yokaichiba City, 44 miles east of Tokyo, will be replaced with new devices that can read the contactless IC cards. Smokers can apply for the cards from January.
The project will test how well the hardware works -- and how willingly the town's smokers take to the new system. The industry groups hope to extend the concept to all of Japan's 620,000 cigarette vending machines available to 33 million smokers by 2008.
Ono said the project could be combined with an electronic money system allowing smokers to pay for cigarettes with their IC cards, eliminating the need to fumble with coins.
Retailers already voluntarily halt vending machine sales of alcohol and cigarettes from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., while tobacco companies have agreed not to advertise their goods on television, radio, the Internet or near schools.
But Ono said more needed to be done.
He noted a government survey last year showing 14.3 percent of Japanese junior and senior high school students had smoked at least one cigarette during the past year.
Although that was a decline from 18.9 percent in a 1994 survey, he was disturbed by the numbers.
``I don't think this number is low. Nor do I think it's acceptable.''
David Fell, president of British American Tobacco Japan Ltd., whose company is one of four tobacco companies comprising the Tobacco Institute of Japan, noted that 60 percent of cigarettes sold in Japan pass through machines.
``Japan's pretty unique in the number of vending machines it has,'' he said.