NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Family and friends have suddenly found themselves blocked from shipping cigarettes and other tobacco products to American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq because of a new law meant to hamper smuggling and underage sales through the mail.
The Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act of 2009 quietly took effect June 29. It cut off those care packages by effectively requiring that tobacco be sent with one particular kind of U.S. Postal Service shipping that requires a signature for delivery but does not deliver to most overseas military addresses.
April Woods, the 26-year-old wife of a Fort Campbell soldier in Afghanistan, used to regularly send him packages of snacks, drink mixes, pictures and cartons of his favorite variety of Marlboros.
"I would hope that they would change it. It's just ridiculous that they take so much away from our soldiers," Woods said.
Woods said her husband, Sgt. Randall Woods, doesn't have easy access to the stores on some Afghanistan bases that sell cigarettes and he also doesn't keep a lot of cash on him while deployed.
"So the only way he has to get cigarettes is through family members," she said.
Woods said every friend of hers with a spouse who smokes is very upset over the restrictions.
The law was created to prevent minors from ordering cigarettes through the mail and to prevent trafficking by requiring tracking and confirmation that the recipient is old enough. It allows small shipments of tobacco products, but only via Express Mail because that's the only postal service product that meets the identification requirements under the law.
"The issue is that Express Mail is not available to some overseas military destinations, primarily Iraq or Afghanistan," said Beth Barnett, spokeswoman for the postal service in Tennessee.
Families don't have any other options for shipping cigarettes. The law only affects the U.S. Postal Service because UPS and FedEx do not allow consumer-to-consumer shipping of tobacco.
Lynn Becker, a spokeswoman for the bill's sponsor, Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that the law did not intend to restrict mailing tobacco to soldiers.
"Sen. Kohl's counsel is working with the legal office at USPS to determine whether there is an alternative to Express Mail that could be used to reach troops overseas," Becker said. "He's also working on a legislative fix to ensure that service members overseas can receive care packages that include tobacco products."
Kohl sent a letter to the Postmaster General asking him to change the regulations, because the bill also expressly permits the shipping of tobacco from adult to adult, including to military addresses.
The military has been trying to reduce smoking among soldiers and vets, including banning indoor smoking and ending smoking on submarines by the end of the year. The Pentagon laid out a plan in 1999 to reduce smoking rates by 5 percent a year and reduce chewing tobacco use to 15 percent by 2001, but wasn't able to achieve the goals. And the Defense Department received a study last year recommending the military move toward becoming tobacco-free perhaps in about 20 years.
But the sudden shift on mailing rules has sown confusion among family and charity groups who now wonder how else to get cigarettes to troops.
Susan Baldwin, of Fairview, Tenn., is the mother of two sailors in the Navy. One of her sons is deployed and asked her to send him a certain type of coffee and his favorite brand of menthol cigarettes.
Baldwin went to the post office to ship the items, but was repeatedly told she couldn't include the cigarettes in the package.
"My kids are my life," she said. "It breaks my heart that the two things he's asking for, I can't give him one of them."
Tracy Della Vecchia, executive director and founder of MarineParents.com, said she thinks a quick fix would be to just exempt packages to military addresses from having to ship by Express Mail because soldiers serving overseas are old enough to buy tobacco.
"It's discriminating against people who are serving in combat zones," she said.
In the past, the group has sent care packages to Marines that include smokeless tobacco or cigarettes if they request it.
"For now, I will absolutely not send any tobacco, because we are a huge organization and I don't want the much needed supplies like baby wipes and toothpaste to go unreceived," she said.
But for parents looking to make their son or daughter a little happier while in a war zone, that's not always an easy decision.
Woods said her husband and the soldiers he's serving with are doing the best they can among themselves.
"Basically everyone tries to share what they can share," she said.