WASHINGTON — Congressional efforts to stamp out tobacco use among troops are expanding to veterans, too.
In separate hearings on Capitol Hill Wednesday, lawmakers from both parties pushed to curb the habit in the ranks and at Veterans Affairs facilities. The moves follow a years-long campaign from defense leaders and VA officials to highlight the negative health effects of tobacco products, which remain more popular with the military crowd than the general population.
At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., blasted Pentagon leaders for a lack of leadership on the issue, saying not enough is being done to discourage the use of tobacco products among young service members. A recent department study noted that 38 percent of smokers in the military started after they enlisted.
Durbin has spearheaded several anti-tobacco efforts in budget legislation in recent years, and promised more in the months to come.
"The rest of the world seems to have awakened to this," he said. "Why has the military been so slow?"
Defense Department research shows that tobacco use has steadily declined since the 1980s, when almost half the force was smoking or using similar products.
Recent studies have found that about 25 percent of troops smoke cigarettes compared with about 20 percent of civilians. Roughly 13 percent use smokeless tobacco products compared with 3 percent of civilians.
Military health officials told Durbin they are pleased with the tobacco cessation efforts in recent years, but still labeled the habit "a serious detriment to the health and performance of our service members."
They promised a closer look at tobacco bans on bases and during certain advance training courses, as well as other options to discourage the practice.
"We’re trying to get after that," said Lt. Gen. Nadja West, Army surgeon general. "There is no minimum daily requirement for tobacco products. Anything we can do from a medical standpoint to educate … we try to push that."
Defense Department research estimates the military loses approximately $1.9 billion a year to illnesses and lost productivity related to tobacco use.
Across the Capitol grounds, members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee debated legislation that would prohibit smoking indoors at any VA health facility, and ban all outdoor smoking on VA medical center grounds by October 2022.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, an Iraq War veteran and surgeon who called the measure "common sense reform" that reduces the dangers of secondhand smoke.
VA officials back the effort. The department estimates that 20 percent of veterans enrolled in VA health care programs are smokers.
"Many of the non-smoker (patients) are also older veterans who may be at higher risk for cardiac or other conditions that may make them even more vulnerable to the cardiovascular events associated with secondhand smoke," VA Deputy Under Secretary for Health Jennifer Lee said in a statement to the committee.
"As with patients of other health care systems, VA believes veteran patients have a right to be protected from secondhand smoke exposure when seeking health care."
But critics of both the active-duty and veteran anti-tobacco efforts have called them an attack on the personal freedoms of Americans who have already sacrificed for their country.
While programs to get users to quit the habit have received minimal opposition, restrictions on the sale of tobacco at military bases and bans on where individuals can use the products have faced more resistance.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.