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Smoke Signals

Japan is instituting an RFID age-verification system to prevent underage kids from buying cigarettes at vending machines.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 01, 2008—The legal age to purchase cigarettes in Japan is 18, but roughly 75 percent of underage smokers easily dodge age checks at stores by using the 500,000 cigarette vending machines in the country, according to a 2004 study by Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

That's about to change, thanks to an RFID age-verification system being rolled out this summer by the Tobacco Institute of Japan (TIOJ), working with the Japan Federation of Tobacco Retail Associations and the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association.

In 2004, Japan signed the World Health Organization's Tobacco Free Initiative, an international treaty designed to improve controls on tobacco, among many other smoking-related public health initiatives. The treaty states that signers must ensure that tobacco vending machines are not accessible to minors and do not promote the sale of tobacco products to minors. The Japanese government looked to the TIOJ, which was involved with other smoking-related public health initiatives, to take action, says Hitomichi Tanaka, public affairs manager for the TIOJ.

The country's Ministry of Finance has set a July 1 deadline for all cigarette vending machines to be equipped with RFID interrogators that read "taspo" (for tobacco, access and passport) cards. The RFID inlay inside the card is made by NXP Semiconductors and conforms to the Mifare 13.56 MHz air-interface protocol. The card must be held to within a few centimeters of the reader, and the number encoded to the card's inlay is unique and encrypted.

Smokers who are at least 20 years old can obtain taspo cards, at no charge, through the TIOJ. The organization has added the option of loading value onto the cards, so consumers also can use them as debit cards to buy cigarettes.

In the blogosphere, reaction to the news about the taspo card indicates some skepticism among Japanese consumers, who say kids will continue to duck the law by finding shop salesclerks who don't ask for IDs. Others are concerned that blocking sales to minors through vending machines will give rise to a black market selling to youths. And while the card includes a photo ID, the machines lack a biometric verification, so there's nothing to stop an underage smoker from using a card belonging to someone else.

But the TIOJ and its partners have put a significant sum—¥80 million (US $790,000)—into getting the project off the ground, and they believe it will be effective. Whether their money and efforts will go up in smoke remains to be seen.
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