Smoking killjoys

2 April 2020
A tobacco shop sign in Italy

A tobacco shop sign in Italy / Lucarelli / Wikimedia Commons

In Italy, cigarettes and other tobacco products in that country can only be sold by designated tobacco shops called "tabacchi".

These outlets are ubiquitous and easily recognisable by very distinct blue sign with a large 'T' and the words 'sali tabacchi, valori bollati'.

The "sali" part goes back to days when salt was a government controlled monopoly. That's no longer the case for salt, but tobacco still is.

Back in 1992 when I worked in Cagliari as a computer scientist, the state tobacco corporation "Monopolio di Stato" (State Monopoly) had its own brand of cigarettes, MS. 

On the streets, MS had was referred to as "Merda Secca" ("dry shit"). One could readily buy other imported brands, but at a significantly higher price. The state monopoly also had a monopoly on distributing those brands.

an old MS cigarette pack with health warning in Italian
An old MS cigarette pack with health warning in Italian / Wikimedia Commons

Then in November 1992, the 14 000 workers at the MS went on strike. Production and distribution of cigarettes across all of Italy was shut down.

Understand that at the time, there were some 13 million smokers in Italy. The supply of available cigarettes quickly dried up.

Chaos followed.

Street vendors began selling loose cigarettes at 1500 lire apiece (about US $1.50 at the time).

Muggers would pounce upon like victims lighting up and run off with the prized puff. 

Prostitutes (there were no "sex workers" back then) began accepting cartons of cigarettes as payment.

I saw grown men overturning public ashtrays and rooting through the debris to retrieve half-smoked stompies.1

Those who can afford it (there were no low cost airlines back then) took flights to the rest of Europe to buy duty free fags and bring back 400 at a time.

For those who could not fly, long queues built up at the borders with Switzerland and France of Italians wanting to drive across, pick up cigs, and come back.

I was simply grateful that I had stopped smoking six weeks before.

So to whomever took the asinine decision to ban cigarette sales during the period of our lockdown, rest assured that you will have triggered tobacco deprivation crime throughtout the country.

Also rest assured that while you have stripped the fiscus of much-needed customs and excise revenue, there are many tobacco smugglers who are celebrating.

  • 1. An Afrikaans word for half-smoked cigarette butt.
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