TOKYO, Oct 19 (Reuters) Smokers in Japan will no longer be able to buy cigarettes from vending machines from next year without an ID card that says they are adults under a new system that aims to make it harder for minors to buy tobacco.
By next July, all of Japan's 570,000 cigarette vending machines will require a smart card called ''taspo'' - a blend of the words tobacco, access and passport - issued only to people who are at least 20, the legal smoking age.
The blue taspo, which also functions as an electronic money card for the new machines, will be offered free of charge by the Tobacco Institute of Japan after smokers send identification papers attesting to their age.
The smoker's picture will be on the card, although the vending machines will not be able to read the images, so they won't be able to tell if the customer is legitimate.
The Tobacco Institute, whose members include Japan's three tobacco companies including the biggest, Japan Tobacco Inc, spent 90 billion yen (780 million dollars) on the machines and says it hopes the new system will prevent minors from smoking.
Another stated aim is to raise awareness among adults to keep cigarettes away from children.
''Without the cooperation of parents and teachers, our industry cannot prevent problems like adults buying cigarettes and giving them to minors,'' said Kazuyuki Kobayashi, general manager at the institute.
''We hope that parents and teachers make an effort at home and in schools to prevent minors from smoking,'' he told reporters.
The number of underage smokers has been on the decline, but a a Health Ministry survey in 2004 showed 13 per cent of boys and 4 per cent of girls in the third year of high school - those aged 17 to 18 - smoked every day.
The proportion of Japanese adults who smoke has slipped to 26 per cent from 34 per cent a decade ago and a peak of 49 per cent in 1966, Japan Tobacco said this week.
The company, half-owned by the government, said a pilot programme for the new vending machines in rural Japan had no impact on sales.
REUTERS ARB RK1625