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Tobacco control advocates concerned with youth access issues should dread the negative utopia where underage smokers purchase cigarettes almost anytime and anywhere. Sadly, such a utopia exists in Japan where over 500 000 cigarette vending machines generate over 40% of the total sales of cigarettes (1997 figures).
Although most shopkeepers in Japan will willingly sell tobacco products directly to minors, they do not need to. Just outside the ubiquitous convenience stores and supermarkets, on virtually every urban street corner, and even at unattended locations on rural highways, tobacco vending machines give young people unlimited opportunity to buy tobacco products with no one watching.
This unrestricted access brings predictable results. The legal minimum age for the purchase of tobacco in Japan is 20 years. However, survey statistics published by the Japanese Ministry of Health last November indicate high rates of underage smoking via several indicators. Most notably, 19% of 15 to 20 year old men, and 4.3% of 15 to 20 year old women, identified themselves as smokers. Moreover, although the survey avoided counting smokers younger than 15 years old, among all smokers in Japan, roughly 8% of men and 6% of women said they started to smoke before they were 15 years old. Overall, 42% of all male smokers and 35% of all female smokers reported becoming habitual smokers before their 20th birthdays.
Not surprisingly, vending machines have long been a point of contention relating to youth access in Japan. In 1996, the tobacco industry announced voluntary measures to shut down outdoor cigarette vending machines between 11 pm and 5 am. Announced as a measure to limit youth access, tobacco industry promoters were merely blowing smoke in the faces of tobacco control advocates.
One guesses that the late night shutdown was designed primarily to help retailers reduce vandalism, because it could not possibly have been a bona fide youth access remedy. Having no need to sneak out for their purchases, most of Japan's underage smokers were fast asleep during the early morning hours, not out wandering the streets.
Statistics make the story obvious. Japan's Tobacco Problems Information Centre estimates that minors consumed approximately three billion packs of cigarettes in 1996. This translates to roughly eight million packs obtained by minors each day. If late night vending machine operations were young people's primary access point to obtain tobacco products, one would certainly expect the streets to have been much busier after hours.
Ironically, Japan prides itself on being the world's first nation to legally prohibit underage smoking in 1900. But that law gets no attention from law enforcement officials or prosecuting authorities. Between 1991 and 1996, public prosecutors received an average of only five cases of reported violations per year; every case closed without indictment or punishment.
A global ban on vending machines can be included in the forthcoming Framework Convention on tobacco control. Japan's accession to such a prohibition would be welcome. However, many readers will remember that the World Health Organization first recommended national prohibition of cigarette vending machines in 1975. Since that time, the number of tobacco vending machines in Japan has nearly doubled. One factor may be Japan's low crime rates, which generally reduce losses from vandalism for vending machine operators. But Japan's streets cannot be regarded as safe while deadly addictive products are virtually handed to its children on every corner.