Why Can't the Pentagon Stop Smoking?

Because Congress wants the military to keep selling tobacco
Illustration by Bloomberg View; Photographs by Getty Images (2)

Even the most oblivious member of Congress knows that smoking is bad for you. As it turns out, it’s even worse for you if you happen to be a soldier. So why would Congress insist that the Pentagon sell cigarettes—at a discount, no less?

The rationale has long been that members of the military have to smoke because their jobs are so stressful. There’s no denying the stress of military service, or that troops who smoke experience more of it than their comrades who don’t. (That may stem less from their work than from nicotine addiction.)

Yet soldiers who smoke are not immune to lung cancer and other lethal pulmonary illnesses. Like all smokers, they face an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, as the current New England Journal of Medicine points out, smoking is especially harmful to soldiers because it lowers their fitness for service: It makes them more susceptible to injury and infection and increases the time it takes for wounds to heal. It also leads them to take more breaks than nonsmoking soldiers take.

The Pentagon, to its credit, has been trying for decades to restrict smoking. Most recently, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said he’s considering banning tobacco sales on Navy ships and Navy and Marine Corps bases. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has asked for a departmentwide review of tobacco policies.

Sadly, and predictably, political forces are fighting back. In response to the Navy’s possible sales ban, Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, has inserted language in the defense authorization bill that would require military commissaries to keep selling tobacco products. Little wonder the military has a smoking problem. The Department of Defense spends more than $1.6 billion a year on medical care and lost work days due to smoking. The Veterans Administration spends billions more on lung disease.

About 1 in 4 members of the U.S. military smoke, compared with about 1 in 5 of the general population. The percentages differ across the military: While about 30 percent of marines smoke, members of the Air Force and Coast Guard smoke less than the national average, as do officers in all branches. Millions of troops, in other words, have found more healthy ways to deal with the stress of military service. Nor are smoking bans difficult to impose or enforce: There is no smoking allowed during basic training, for example, and a 2010 ban on smoking on submarines went off with no trouble.

The policy review Hagel has requested should be finished within a couple of months. It can be expected to take account of the Institute of Medicine’s 2009 recommendation to work toward a tobacco-free military. That need not result in an immediate ban. But gradually increasing limitations on where and when troops can smoke is necessary, as is expanding efforts to help them quit.

In the meantime, the military is right to want to get out of the cigarette-sales business—and Congress should let it.

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