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Sweepstakes at stake HELLO, HOT LINE: I have a question concerning the various sweepstakes contests. If you don't order magazines during some of the promotions, you have to send your sweepstakes entry in an envelope marked ``no.'

I want to participate in the sweepstakes, but I am on Social Security and do not have the money for a subscription. Will my entry be tossed in the trash can? R.J.Dear R.J.: You do not have to order to be eligible for the promotion. Federal and state laws make that illegal.

The separate ``yes' and ``no' envelopes are provided in most cases so that the ``no' responses can be routed directly to the judging agency, thus reducing the volume of mail handled by the company, according to a Reader's Digest sweepstakes guide.

Sweepstakes promotions are a way a company draws attention to the product it offers. Sweepstakes are also monitored by outside agencies. At Reader's Digest, for example, the contest is monitored by a contest judge and an accounting firm.

In addition, after each sweepstakes, Reader's Digest files a list of winners with the states of New York and Florida - as required by law.

Patent answers HELLO, HOT LINE: I have an idea I'd like to present to large companies that market personal hygiene items for women.

I'd like to approach interested companies in a way in which I will profit from this product, and at the same time prevent the company from taking my idea and producing it as its own.

How should I handle this? C.Y.

Dear C.Y.: Your best defense is in getting a patent for your idea. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's booklet ``General Information Concerning Patents' includes a patent application.

To order the booklet (stock number 003-004-00641-2), send a $2 check or money order to the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402, or by calling the office at (202) 783-3238 and charging the order to a Mastercard or Visa.

Your return application must include a written description of the item, a declaration or oath stating the idea is your own, drawings where possible, and a filing fee.

The basic non-refundable filing fee is $370, but if the party applying for the patent is an individual, a small company or a non-profit organization, the fee is $185.

HOT LINE checked with Cindy Van Grinsven, director of customer service with Kimberly-Clark, one of the biggest manufacturers of feminine hygiene products.

She said most companies have research and development workers who come up with new ideas and concepts for the companies to market.

The idea you have may be something that a prospective company may already be working on.

Grinsven said unsolicited ideas are accepted by Kimberly-Clark under two standard agreements, one for patented ideas, the other for unprotected ideas.

She said she would send you more information.

Sulfite worries HELLO, HOT LINE: As a person allergic to sulfites, I am aware that the law prohibits restaurants from using them in salad bars. However, I am wondering if this law also covers individual salads served in restaurants. R.B.

Dear R.B.: Yes. State and federal laws prohibit the addition of sulfites to fresh fruits and vegetables consumed by the general public through retail or wholesale establishments, according to state health and agriculture officials.

Sulfite is a chemical used as a preservative that can cause severe allergic reactions in susceptible individuals.

It is still allowed in acceptable levels in wines, frozen potatoes and raw shrimp, among other edibles.

Send your questions and comments to HOT LINE, P.O. Box 20848, Greensboro, N.C. 27420; or call 272-5635.

A consumer HOT LINE runs Mondays and Wednesdays; an entertainment HOT LINE runs Fridays.

HOT LINE tries to answer as many questions as possible, based on general interest. Nancy McLaughlin is HOT LINE editor.

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