Amanda Ripley

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Smoke Out

24th Jul 2009 posted in General

Should soldiers be banned from smoking in war zones?

According to a recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report (commissioned by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs), 30% of active-duty personnel and 22% of vets smoke. By comparison, 21% of Americans use tobacco. Soldiers’ habits cost the U.S. $1.6 billion per year on tobacco-related medical care, increased hospitalizations, and lost days of work, according to the report. And “smoking rates among military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may be 50 percent higher than rates among nondeployed military personnel.”   

The IOM report recommended a gradual ban on smoking in war zones, but the very idea has proven radioactive. Smoking is already restricted on bases. And many vets, like reporter Jeff Emanuel, point out that the timing is atrocious: “Yes, tobacco has been proven to cause both short and long-term health problems - but are we really going to preach about health benefits of their activities to Americans we pay (albeit poorly) to be shot at for a living?”

Some see a liberal conspiracy: check out the Free Republic’s lively debate on the subject. Of course, it’s hard to imagine that the IOM had any other motive than the health of our troops. (It’s worth remembering that 1 in 5 American deaths will be tobacco-related.  Add that to an already dangerous job and you’ve got more risk factors than you can count.) But the military has a long and mixed history of trying to purify the ranks. During WWI, the military banned the use of prostitutes and encouraged soldiers to masturbate. Around the same time, alcohol was forbidden on Navy ships.

But the more stress and deployments soldiers endure, the more alcohol and drugs they use—ban or no ban. Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reassured soldiers that no blanket ban on smoking is forthcoming. Makes sense. If there’s a time to take away a soldier’s last vice, this ain’t it.