Driven by growing concerns over potential health problems of underage smoking, the tobacco industry will introduce vending machines featuring an age-verification system in 2008 to prevent minors from buying cigarettes.

Three industry bodies, the Tobacco Institute of Japan, the Japan Tobacconist Federation, and the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, said Thursday they will start accepting applications in December 2007 for integrated circuit cards that will be needed to buy cigarettes from vending machines.

They said the trial use of the new vending machines, in Yokaichiba, Chiba Prefecture, for one year from April 2002 and in Tanegashima, Kagoshima Prefecture, from May 2005, proved the system works.

The new vending machines will dispense cigarettes only after a purchaser’s IC card has been scanned and verified.

“Preventing minors from smoking is important,” said Yuji Abe of TIJ, citing the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires member countries to introduce systems to block youths from buying cigarettes.

Japan ratified the convention in June 2004 and it went into effect in February 2005.

“We would like to ask adult smokers who use vending machines for understanding and cooperation and hope they will obtain the cards,” Abe added.

Development of the system and introduction of the new vending machines will cost a combined 80 billion yen, according to the industry groups.

The timing of the introduction of the new machines will vary according to region.

The organizations said they will start accepting applications from residents in Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures in December 2007, while people in all other parts of Japan can send applications beginning in February 2008.

Application forms will be available at tobacco shops and on the Web site for downloading.

The new vending machines will be installed beginning in March 2008 in Kagoshima and Miyazaki, and other regions will start to see them between the following May and July. The groups hope to replace or retrofit all the roughly 620,000 cigarette machines nationwide.

TIJ will issue the IC cards, which will be called “taspo” (from “tobacco,” “access” and “passport”), to adults who send applications, including a photograph and documentary proof of their date of birth.

The IC cards will also feature electronic money functions to enhance customer convenience, the organizations said.

Although the experiment in Tanegashima reduced juvenile smoking, the industry groups acknowledge that the system has loopholes.

The number of underage smokers taken into police custody in the town between May 2004 and April 2005 dropped from 35 to 28 in the same period the previous year. But in two of the cases, kids purchased cigarettes using their parents’ IC cards and through adult acquaintances.

Implementing measures to prevent minors from buying cigarettes is a global trend. Germany, which bans people under age 16 from smoking, will introduce similar age-verification system for vending machines in January, according to TIJ.

The tobacco market in Japan has been shrinking over the past decade. In fiscal 2005, roughly 285.2 billion cigarettes were sold in Japan, compared with 348.3 billion sold in fiscal 1996.

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