Smokers fume as police foil a deadly habit

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BEWARE, funerals in Calabria can be dangerous to your health. Police searching for smuggled cigarettes stopped a hearse in Reggio Calabria this week and found not a dear departed but 90kg (200lbs) of cigarettes stuffed into the coffin and behind the rich draperies of the vehicle.

Alfio Catania, an undertaker, had found a more lucrative way of bringing people to their grave, cashing in on the desperation of 13 million Italian smokers forced into abstinence by nearly a month- long strike of State Tobacco Monopoly workers.

Their nerves in shreds, smokers are resorting to extreme measures to get their hands on a fag. Off the volcanic island of Stromboli, the crews of four fishing boats stopped a Russian cargo ship and demanded that the crew hand over their stocks. In Rome, two tobacconists were beaten up by smokers who refused to believe that they really did not have a single packet in the shop.

Tempers are getting worse as the situation, in theory, should be getting better. The Guardia di Finanza, Italy's armed customs police, are 'liberating' cigarettes from trains and warehouses and distributing them to tobacconists, in some cases amid flying eggs and fisticuffs from the strikers.

But the smokers who get up before dawn to join long queues at tobacconists near the railways - who they calculate should be the first to get supplies - end up furious and disappointed. The tobacconists complain that the supplies are inadequate and the people who get there first buy as much as they can.

The strikers' leaders are putting it about that the tobacconists are keeping the cigarettes themselves to sell off, presumably at black market prices. Outraged at this insult, on top of a month's financial injury, the tobacconists' federation is suing for libel.