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I.D. cards for cigarette machines set to debut

by Takahiro Fukada

People buying cigarettes out of vending machines will soon have to use a taspo integrated circuit card to verify their age.

Following are questions and answers about the new card:

What is taspo and how does it work?

Taspo is the name that’s been given to the IC card (combining “tobacco,” “access” and “passport”) and is issued by the Tobacco Institute of Japan. Without this card, it will be impossible to buy cigarettes from a vending machine.

Smokers will need to place the taspo on a card reader on the front of the machine, which will access information stored in the card and verify that the purchaser is at least 20 years old — the legal smoking age.

The card also has a prepaid electronic money function, allowing people to deposit up to ¥20,000 for cigarette purchases.

When used as a debit card, age verification and payment will take place simultaneously.

Why is taspo being introduced?

The institute’s Web site says, “Taspo is the ultimate way of rigorously conducting age verification checks and is expected to be a highly effective way of preventing underage smoking.”

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has conducted studies showing that 70 percent to 80 percent of underage smokers get their cigarettes from vending machines. By introducing taspo, the institute hopes to cut this phenomenon off.

What is the schedule of taspo’s introduction nationwide?

A pilot project will begin in March in Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures. It will then be introduced in the rest of Kyushu, plus Hokkaido, Shikoku and the Tohoku and Chugoku regions in May. Central Japan and the Kansai region will see the system in June, and finally Okinawa and the Kanto region will get it in July, affecting nearly all of Japan’s estimated 520,000 cigarette machines.

How does one obtain a card?

First, pick up an application form available at tobacco shops and other places, including on the front of many cigarette machines. The form can also be downloaded at www.taspo.jp and the site has detailed instructions in English, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese.

A photocopy of a personal identification document, such as driver’s license, public health insurance card or alien registration card, and a mug shot measuring 45 mm by 35 mm that has been taken within the last three months will also be necessary.

Mail the application form with the photo and the I.D. photocopy to the institute and the card will arrive in the mail in about two weeks.

There is no charge or annual membership fee. The card will be valid for 10 years.

What if a card is lost?

Call the taspo service center toll-free at (0120) 222-180 from a regular phone or (0570) 012-340 from a mobile phone, which will be charged. To prevent unauthorized use, the lost card will be suspended and a new card will be issued. The e-money balance will be transferred to the new card.

Are there any loopholes in the new system?

Yes. A taspo card is not required when purchasing cigarettes at a shop. Even though employees are supposed to check the age of purchasers who they suspect are minors, this doesn’t always prevent underage smoking.

Also, a minor could sneak their parent’s card or borrow one from any legitimate card holder to use in a cigarette machine.

“We can never prevent adults from purchasing alcohol and tobacco for children,” institute spokesman Hitomichi Tanaka said. “We hope cardholders behave like responsible adults.”

Do any other countries have similar countermeasures against underage smoking?

The institute said Germany also uses IC cards for age identification to prevent minors from purchasing tobacco from vending machines.