Too many Marines smoke.

Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Uncle Sam Wants You (to Quit Smoking)

Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a vice chairman of investment banking at Lazard. He was President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010 and the director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2007 to 2008.
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There's good news this month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: In 2015, the smoking rate among adults in the U.S. fell to a new low of 15 percent. Within the military, though, smoking rates remain substantially higher. This not only harms the health of soldiers but also impairs military performance, which is why Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter should push to further discourage smoking in the military.

According to a 2011 Defense Department survey, 49 percent of service members used some form of nicotine product within the previous year. Within the Marine Corps, the share was 60 percent. Those who reported being current smokers accounted for 24 percent of all military personnel.

The rates vary substantially by service (smoking is almost twice as common in the Marine Corps as in the Air Force) and by pay grade (with the most senior officers smoking at one-tenth the rate of the most junior enlisted personnel). Some of this variation is to be expected; smoking is also much lower among civilians in high-income households with high levels of education. Even adjusting for education and income, though, smoking is noticeably higher overall in the military.

This reduces military performance and increases costs, the Institute of Medicine has found. More specifically, an IOM committee determined that "military personnel who smoke have reduced physical-performance capacity, lower visual acuity and poorer night vision than nonsmokers. Smoking is associated with hearing loss and increased risks of motor-vehicle collisions, physical injury and hospitalization." One estimate suggests tobacco-related expenses cost the Department of Defense more than $1.5 billion a year.

The goal, says the IOM, should be a tobacco-free military. And though that will take time, some progress has been made. As recently as 1975, cigarettes were still included in military rations. After that ended and other steps were taken to discourage cigarette use, military smoking rates declined sharply. From 1980 to 1998, the share of service members who smoked fell from more than half to less than a third. Since then, smoking rates have continued dropping, but at a more modest pace.

Now, the Defense Department's Advisory Committee on Tobacco, formed in the summer of 2014, has reportedly recommended raising the prices of cigarettes sold on military bases and expanding tobacco-free areas. The Air Force has increased such areas -- which may explain its relatively low smoking rates. Prices affect smoking activity, a wide variety of research shows, and cigarettes have historically been significantly subsidized in military retail outlets. Those subsidies were eliminated by the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, but the legislation didn't specify how high prices should go.

Our nation owes much to our military, but it's no reward to subsidize or otherwise encourage smoking -- a habit that impairs operational performance and health. The military, like the rest of the country, needs to continue making solid progress toward quitting. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Peter R. Orszag at porszag3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net