Pentagon considering banning tobacco for servicemembers

Victor Joecks

Wow. And I thought we were supposed to smoke for the children.

Sin taxes: Guilting you into smoking for the childrenI can’t believe this isn’t some type of joke, but there it is in USA Today.

Pentagon health experts are urging Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ban the use of tobacco by troops and end its sale on military property, a change that could dramatically alter a culture intertwined with smoking.

Jack Smith, head of the Pentagon’s office of clinical and program policy, says he will recommend that Gates adopt proposals by a federal study that cites rising tobacco use and higher costs for the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs as reasons for the ban.

The study by the Institute of Medicine, requested by the VA and Pentagon, calls for a phased-in ban over a period of years, perhaps up to 20. “We’ll certainly be taking that recommendation forward,” Smith says.

A tobacco ban would confront a military culture, the report says, in which “the image of the battle-weary soldier in fatigues and helmet, fighting for his country, has frequently included his lit cigarette.”

Also, the report said, troops worn out by repeated deployments often rely on cigarettes as a “stress reliever.” The study found that tobacco use in the military increased after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said the department supports a smoke-free military “and believes it is achievable.” She declined to elaborate on any possible ban.

One in three servicemembers use tobacco, the report says, compared with one in five adult Americans. The heaviest smokers are soldiers and Marines, who have done most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the study says. About 37% of soldiers use tobacco and 36% of Marines. Combat veterans are 50% more likely to use tobacco than troops who haven’t seen combat.

Tobacco use costs the Pentagon $846 million a year in medical care and lost productivity, says the report, which used older data. The Department of Veterans Affairs spends up to $6 billion in treatments for tobacco-related illnesses, says the study, which was released late last month.

Along with a phased-in ban, the report recommends requiring new officers and enlisted personnel to be tobacco-free, eliminating tobacco use on military installations, ships and aircraft, expanding treatment programs and eliminating the sale of tobacco on military property. “Any tobacco use while in uniform should be prohibited,” the study says.

Wow. Have these people ever served in the military or been around those in the service? Because if they had, they would understand why this proposal is laughable – unless of course they want to cut the military in half. Which, hey, maybe they do.

First, this shows (again) the dangers of the government picking the winners and losers in the economy. And federal and state governments (including Nevada’s) have repeatedly chosen tobacco and alcohol as losers and saddled them with high “sin” taxes. Less than three weeks after taking office, President Obama even doubled the federal cigarette tax to pay for an expansion of SCHIP.

You can’t have it both ways. If you want to tax tobacco to pay for a federal program, you can’t ban it for segments of your population.

Second, the tobacco “costs” cited in the story don’t tell the whole story (if the numbers are even accurate to begin with). Tobacco use causes a myriad of health problems that shorten life expectancy and save Social Security, Medicare and pension plans billions. Vanderbilt University economist Kip Viscusi found that the country gained a net savings of 32 cents for every pack smoked.

Third, if the Pentagon is serious about this proposal – again I have my doubts – why not implement it for all public employees? Again, I think the evidence shows the cost savings argument is garbage, but if that’s the argument you make, you should be consistent. Let’s start at the top.

Would the Pentagon policy apply to the Commander in Chief?
Fourth, those who serve are volunteering to risk their lives to protect this country’s freedom. To try to limit their ability to partake in a legal activity is more than a little ironic.