Friday, July 10, 2009

The Smoking Lamp is Lit, for Now

Safety nazis at the Pentagon and the Veteran's Administration are urging Defense Secretary Gates to ban the use of tobacco by U.S. military troops, using the (to my mind, specious) argument that tobacco-related medical costs would be reduced. What's next? Trigger locks on rifles? No running with bayonets? Don't throw that hand grenade, solider, you could put somebody's eye out!

Considering all the many ways in which troops end up sick, hurt, and grievously wounded, smoking must be one of the lesser contributors to high medical costs, especially for combat veterans, who are 50% more likely to smoke than other troops according to the story in today's USA Today: Ban on tobacco urged in military.

WASHINGTON — 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 service members 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.

-- snip --

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.

The military complicates attempts to curb tobacco use by subsidizing tobacco products for troops who buy them at base exchanges and commissaries, says Kenneth Kizer, a committee member and architect of California's anti-tobacco program. [TSB note: I don’t believe the military actually subsidizes tobacco products, it just doesn’t charge state sales taxes on them, or on other goods sold at base exchanges. I fondly recall buying Bacardi rum tax-free at the Class 6 store on Ft. Buchanan, Puerto Rico, for a small fraction of what my Puertorriqueño neighbors paid in civilian stores.]

The authors of the Institute of Medicine study seem to assume that ground combat types - Army and Marines - and combat veterans use tobacco more than other troops because they are self-medicating to reduce stress. Maybe, but I'd guess that it might be the other way around: the kind of people who gravitate toward Infantry and the other combat arms are predisposed to risky behavior in all areas of life. In the first place, combat troops are predominately young and male, a cohort that is joyously unrestrained in its behavior even in peacetime. Most of them tend to drive too fast, ride motorcycles, drink excessively, play dangerous sports, get into fights, and engage in unsafe sexual practices. Some of them will try to do all of that at the same time. It always has been and always will be the case that "single men in barracks don't grow into plaster saints."

Librarians, by and large, don't do things that are bad for them. But neither do they, by and large, make for combat troops who will engage and destroy the enemies of the United States. The kind of people who will enforce America's national will over the final hundred meters of ground, whether in Germany or Japan, Iraq or Afghanistan, ought to be entitled to smoke and chew tobacco if they want to without the Pentagon getting on their backs about it. Let's cut them some slack, please.

To quote - very, very, loosely, and from memory - a passage from the BBC TV play "C2 H5 OH" [the chemical symbol for alcohol], which was the thinly-veiled autobiographical story of playwright David Purser:

"I thank God that when this nation faced the menace of the vegetarian, non-smoking, tea-totaling Adolph Hitler, it threw out of office the milksop Neville Chamberlain and put its fate in the hands of the corpulent, cigar-smoking, whiskey-sodden Churchill!"

No comments: