Involuntary cold turkey: Tobacco in short supply at bases in Italy
July 31, 2009
Many tobacco users stationed at the two largest U.S. installations in northern Italy have had to do without their favorite brands in recent weeks.
The shelves of the Army and Air Force Exchange and Defense Commissary Agency outlets in Vicenza and Aviano are largely bare of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco — with only a few brands left in most locations.
The shortage is caused by a lack of tobacco shipments from Italian ports, officials said.
Previously, Italian carabinieri had escorted the shipments to Vicenza, Aviano and Camp Darby, AAFES-Europe spokesman Lt. Col. Wayne Marotto said. But they’re no longer doing that, and AAFES is working with various agencies to come up with a solution.
Until a solution is found, the tobacco will stay where it is.
Since AAFES supplies DECA with tobacco in northern Italy, they’re both affected.
Faced with budget shortages and limited personnel, the carabinieri have decided they don’t need to provide such escorts any more, said Col. Daniele Benvenuti, head of the Gruppo Carabinieri Southern European Task Force based in Vicenza.
Benvenuti said escorting cigarette shipments is not seen as a high priority, given all the missions they have to accomplish.
“We are a military police force. The escorting of cigarettes is not a military function. It never should have been,” Benvenuti said. “They are not military assets. They are not military secrets, or weapons. Those trucks are not carrying anything that would harm the United States, or allies, or Italy. They are carrying cigarettes. And we cannot continue to provide escorts.”
Francesca Cisotto, who arranges such escorts for the 14th Transportation Battalion, said customs officials in areas where the products are shipped maintain that security escorts are required. Or that those picking up the shipments pay deposits to ensure the deliveries are properly made.
This is presumably due to the Italian government’s concern that tobacco products could wind up on a black market that’s been estimated to cost the government hundreds of millions of euros annually in lost taxes. Tobacco products sold at American outlets are rationed items, costing significantly less than those products sold off base.
The shortage has some troops grumbling.
Sgt. 1st Class Edward McCoy, who has been chewing tobacco for 24 years, says the base stores in Vicenza haven’t carried any smokeless tobacco since the middle of May.
“There’s been none ever since,” McCoy said in a phone interview Tuesday.
He had his last dip on June 29 — a can given to him by a friend. Unlike smokers, McCoy and other smokeless tobacco users have a harder time finding their products outside the base, because Italians generally don’t engage in such habits.
The situation’s a bit better at Aviano Air Base, where the commissary still has some varieties of smokeless tobacco, although AAFES doesn’t have any.
Marotto said the agency has heard a few complaints from troops, some suggesting that it’s part of a plan to reduce tobacco consumption in the military.
“That’s not true,” he said. “I want to put that to rest. I want to assure that AAFES is committed to meeting the tobacco needs of its customers.”
The commissary in Aviano posted an average of $13,060 a month in tobacco sales during the first half of the year, according to Gerri Young, public affairs officer for DECA-Europe. Vicenza’s commissary had a monthly average of $5,706 in tobacco sales during the same period. AAFES figures were not available.
Staff writer Sandra Jontz contributed to this report.