Virtual Vending

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Virtual Vending

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Tobacco company Brown & Williamson is putting a high-tech twist on the cigarette vending machine, which faded into obscurity after drawing fire for giving minors easy access to tobacco.

The Louisville company is introducing new machines that feature a virtual reality salesclerk on a video screen to talk buyers through purchases. The machine requires customers to swipe their ID and credit card to verify they're 18 or older. If either one shows the customer is underage, the salesclerk appears on the screen and delivers a stern message: "I'm sorry, but I can't sell you smokes if you're under 18. Now go home before I call your mama."

Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. calls it interactive vending, and officials said they hope it'll boost ailing vending sales. Plans are in place to put them in bars, nightclubs and restaurants. The machines don't accept cash or coins and are being tested in Los Angeles, California, and Cleveland, Ohio.

"The vending machines show that this is a responsible way to market to adult consumers who choose to smoke," said B&W spokesman Stephen Kottak, "and at the same time ensure youth cannot get access to tobacco products."

But anti-smoking groups said the machines don't go far enough in keeping minors from lighting up. "When you don't have a face-to-face sale, there's a chance someone's going to get a credit card and a driver's license and going to be able to use it," said Charlie Smith of the American Cancer Society. "We don't allow vending sales for beer, guns or prescription drugs because we want the face-to-face sale."

ABOVE: To buy cigarettes from a virtual vending machine, customers will need an ID and a credit card to prove they're 18 or older.