Phone tech targets teen smokers, drunk drivers

TOKYO Fri Mar 30, 2007 1:44pm EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - Wireless technology is taking aim at Japan's lawbreakers.

By the end of 2008, more than 600,000 cigarette vending machines across Japan -- where most teenagers get their smokes -- will be installed with an electronic age-verification device.

This will be a tough change for underage smokers in Japan, who have been purchasing 300-yen cigarette packs on their way to school as readily as buying a can of soda.

According to a government survey of Japanese high-school seniors in 2004, about 42 percent of the boys and 27 percent of the girls have either tried smoking or are regular smokers.

To buy cigarettes from vending machines in the future, smokers will have to flash a smart card against an electronic reader to prove they are above the legal age of 20.

The Taspo cards -- showing photo, name, membership number and expiration date -- will be issued by the Tobacco Institute of Japan (TIOJ), an association of tobacco retailers. The cards are also embedded with a chip that allows customers to pay electronically.

Transaction details are transmitted wirelessly from each machine to a system provided by a group of companies led by NTT Data (9613.T), a unit of phone giant Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. (9432.T)

"Cigarette machines are everywhere now and there is no one to stop me," said a 17-year-old in Tokyo as he scooped up a pack of Mild Seven, Japan's most popular brand, from a vending machine. "I guess it won't be so easy anymore."

The system will be phased in gradually and has already been tested in two places -- a small city in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo in 2002, and a town on the southern island of Kyushu in 2004.

"Local residents said teenagers stopped hanging around cigarette vending machines like they used to," said Hiroshi Yokoya, a TIOJ spokesman.

But the smart card devices, which are costing the tobacco companies and vending machine makers close to 90 billion yen ($763.2 million), won't stop all teens from smoking.

Some will still try to buy them in stores, or even sneak a card from an adult.

BREATHALYZERS

Technology is also helping keep roads free of drunk drivers.

Transport companies are using mobile phones attached to Breathalyzers to make sure their employees aren't driving while under the influence.

With a device developed by mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo (9437.T) and Tanita Corp., drivers breathe into the alcohol detector that connects to a cell phone for real-time reading of the alcohol content in their breaths.

To verify that it is actually the driver breathing into the device, the process takes place while he and a supervisor are connected on a video call, during which they can also reiterate other safety rules.

DoCoMo said it has sold 1,500 of the alcohol-sensors to 150 companies since their launch in June 2006. The sensors, which come with a special software, are sold on average for 90,000 yen each.

A similar system made by rival operator KDDI (9433.T), which uses e-mail instead of a video phone, is also equipped with GPS technology that helps companies keep track of drivers' exact locations.

Transport companies are welcoming the help from new technology especially after the government toughened penalties for firms that fail to properly supervise their drivers.

Also, extensive press coverage on tragic crashes caused by drunk drivers has raised public concern for road safety.

The number of fatal accidents involving drunk drivers in Japan fell by 14 percent in 2006 from a year earlier, thanks to stricter rules, but the total for that year still stands at 611 cases, according to Tokyo police.

"The alcohol-checking system has had a huge impact for us because we are able to show customers our commitment to safety," said an executive of a Tokyo-based delivery firm that uses DoCoMo's devices.

"Words just weren't enough."

FILED UNDER: