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Military’s Mixed Message on Smoking

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A new report recommends that the U.S. military work toward a ban on smoking, but while the Pentagon has supported efforts to cut tobacco use among service members, the military also sells cigarettes at discounted prices to soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Fox News reported July 17 that health experts say that the military needs to address its mixed messages on tobacco use. On the one hand, they said, soldiers are offered smoking-cessation aids, and smoking is banned at some military facilities. On the other hand, the Pentagon recently announced that smoking will not be prohibited in war zones because it helps ease stress, and base exchanges and commissaries sell cigarettes at 5 percent off market prices.

The conflicting policies “tends to reinforce behaviors that you want to extinguish,” said healthcare consultant Kenneth Kizer, former undersecretary for health in the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Researchers estimate that tobacco use costs the military $846 million annually, while the VA spends about $6 billion annually to treat tobacco-related illnesses. Thirty-two percent of military personnel smoke, far higher than the national average, and tobacco use has increased since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brian Wise, head of the group Military Families United, said that even a gradual phaseout of smoking in the military would be a mistake.

“The Defense Department is in the process of executing two wars and their attention should not be spent on whether or not our troops can light up cigarettes on the battlefields,” said Wise. “It should be spent on how they can prosecute the wars successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Our troops give up an awful lot to serve our country, and the one vice they’re allowed to have to relieve the stress of combat is a cigarette here and there,” said Wise, who said that the health experts who penned the Pentagon report on smoking policy “don’t know or understand what our troops go through.”

“A ban on smoking would have a much more detrimental effect on the morale of our troops than the costs that the study shows,” Wise contended. “While I understand and appreciate the military trying to reduce the costs of tobacco use, it should never come at the expense of our troops’ ability to accomplish their missions abroad.”

“Service men and women give up all sorts of aspects in their lives that are legal in civilian society but not acceptable in the military,” replied report co-author Peter Jacobson of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “So to single out tobacco as sacrosanct seems to miss the broader point of the contract between the military and individual soldiers.”

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