Smokers in Germany will have to use credit cards proving they are aged at least 16 when buying cigarettes from vending machines from next year, in a bid to crack down on tobacco use among teenagers, officials said.

The German government’s drug czar, Sabine Baetzig, unveiled the measure, which will take effect on January 1, 2007, at a press conference in Berlin.

"By introducing age restrictions for the purchase of cigarettes from a vending machine, we are putting youth protection laws into practice," said Baetzig, who is based at the family affairs ministry.

"We therefore limit the access of young people to cigarettes and protect them from possible harm."

To buy a pack from a machine, adult smokers will have to use a credit card embedded with a microchip that contains a "Jugendschutzmerkmal" (youth protection symbol).

Anyone under the age of 16 would be automatically rejected.

"With this measure we close a major loophole in the youth protection law which bans the sale of cigarettes to people under the age of 16," Baetzig said.

The law, which went on the books in April 2003, did not explicitly cover vending machines.

The legislation came as part of a raft of measures that have driven down the smoking rate among German adolescents, to 20 percent among 12 to 17 year olds in 2005 from 28 percent in 2001.

Many major banks already issue credit cards with the required microchips but vending machines throughout the country will have to be replaced with ones that can read the new cards.

Baetzing said she expected that the number of machines used by the tobacco industry would drop from 800 000 to 450 000.