The Defense Department has stated that 175,000 currently serving service members will die of tobacco use. To put that number into context, that’s more soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines than were killed in combat in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the war with Mexico, the war with Spain, WWI, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.
The sad part of this is that 38 percent of current military smokers began smoking after they joined the military — which almost all of the enlisted personnel did before they turned 21 years old. If the legal tobacco use age were raised to 21, almost all of those who enlist in the military would not be able to smoke legally for their first few years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 95 percent of smokers start by age 21. Raising the legal age of tobacco use to 21 would cause a significant reduction in its use.
Why does the Defense Department care about tobacco use among service members? After all, most of these premature deaths will occur after these folks have left the military. They then become the VA’s problem as veterans suffer from emphysema and lung cancer and all the other ailments that smoking causes.
For one thing, smoking-related illnesses cost the Pentagon some $1.6 billion per year in direct outlays.
Second, smoking is a readiness issue. Smokers are not as fit and capable as non-smokers. They spend more time in the hospital when they are wounded or injured, meaning they are away from their units longer.
But, we know it’s not simple. There is a military culture which encourages tobacco use. “Willie and Joe” from World War II exemplify it. The war-weary GI gazes with the thousand-yard stare, cigarette dangling from his lips. Today’s GI is likely to dip or chew or smoke, all of which can lead to really bad health results.
I remember when boxes of C-rations came with three-packs of cigarettes in them, together with matches. This was the tobacco companies’ way of hooking more military folks on tobacco use. They actually started doing this during WWI at a time when men smoked cigars, and cigarettes were not regarded as manly. It was all nefarious, as we know from the tobacco company documents that have been released over the years. Members of the military services were a particular target for these companies.
Raising the legal age for tobacco use to 21 would save countless lives and billions of dollars. It’s a step worth taking.
Retired Army Col. James Tyson Currie is executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service, one of the seven uniformed services of the federal government.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.