Marine Daniel Hinther from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, 2nd MEB smokes a cigarette during a lull in fighting near Now Zad in Afghanistan's Helmand province June 20. At right is Staff Sgt. Luke Medlin. (David Guttenfelder / The Associated Press)
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Smokers on the front lines need not fear any effort to ban the habit as long as Defense Secretary Robert Gates is on the job.
A recent report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, called for eliminating tobacco sales at all military installations and setting a "specific, mandatory date by which the military will be tobacco-free."
But while Gates "shares [the report authors'] concern about the health and well-being of the force," Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters Wednesday, "you should not expect him to take any action which would restrict the use of tobacco products by … our service members in conflict zones."
Gates, who Morrell said has not yet read the IOM report but plans to, would like to "move towards" the ultimate goal of a tobacco-free military. But Gates feels that troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are under enough stress as it is.
"I don't think he is interested in adding to their stress levels by taking away one of the few outlets they may have to relieve stress," Morrell said. "And that may be chewing tobacco or smoking a cigarette."
The announcement of Gates's stance coincided with a statement from the advocacy group Military Families United opposing the IOM stance and calling instead for developing a comprehensive tobacco prevention and cessation program.
"Nobody doubts the effects of smoking, but it is not an illegal substance and should not be banned," Brian Wise, the group's executive director, said in the statement. "Our troops make enough sacrifices to serve our nation. They give up many of the freedoms civilians enjoy already without being told they cannot partake in yet another otherwise legal activity. Perhaps more than anything, smoking in the field is more about comfort and coping with an often hostile environment."
Few would dispute the negative effects of smoking tobacco. According to the American Cancer Society, tobacco use is responsible for nearly one in 5 U.S. deaths; the group says that about half of all Americans who continue smoking will die from the habit. Smoking is a major cause of heart disease, aneurysms, bronchitis, emphysema and stroke, and has a negative impact on reproductive health, the group says.
Tobacco use also produces significant strain on government health care systems. The Department of Veterans Affairs spent $5 billion in 2008 on the treatment of smoking-related emphysema in 2008. Two years earlier, the Military Health System spent roughly $564 million on tobacco-related costs.