Opinion Columns & Blogs

The Pentagon should stop selling tobacco

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 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 (though it may come more from their nicotine addiction than from their work).

Yet soldiers who smoke are not immune to lung cancer and the other lethal pulmonary illnesses that smoking causes. And like all smokers, they face an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, as an article in 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 injuries and infections, slows the time it takes for their wounds to heal, and leads them to take more frequent breaks than nonsmoking soldiers take.

The Pentagon, to its credit, has been trying for decades to restrict smoking. Most recently, Navy Secretary 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 Defense Department-wide review of tobacco policies.

Sadly and predictably, political forces are fighting back. In response to the Navy’s possible sales ban, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, has inserted language in the defense authorization bill that would require military commissaries to keep selling tobacco products.

So it’s little wonder the military has continued to have a smoking problem. The Defense Department spends more than $1.6 billion a year on medical care and lost days of work due to smoking, and the Veterans Administration spends billions more treating ex-soldiers with lung disease.

About 1 in 4 members of all branches of the U.S. military smoke, compared with about 1 in 5 of the general population. But 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 that inevitably accompanies military service. Nor are smoking bans especially difficult to impose or enforce: There is no smoking allowed during basic training, for example, and a 2010 ban on smoking on submarines – instituted after a warning period, to allow sailors time to quit – went off with no trouble.

The policy review Hagel has requested is expected to be finished within a couple of months, and 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 on all smoking. But gradual limitations on where and when troops are allowed to smoke are necessary, as are greater 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.