Today on Veteran’s Day, we thank those men and women who chose to serve our nation and quite literally put their lives on the line. News articles discuss the concerns people have over health care for our vets and how more needs to be done for them. But tobacco use is higher in the military than in the civilian population and some are reluctant to put bans in place. Why is it our military personnel are still being targeted by the tobacco industry? And even worse, why is it being allowed?
The tobacco industry and the military have a long relationship. The government bought tobacco to offer free cigarettes to the dough boys in WWI at a time when pipes and cigars were more popular. When the servicemen came home, the tobacco industry had a group of young men willing to pay to continue their addiction. During World War II about 30% of cigarettes were shipped overseas and people at home were encouraged to buy tobacco to send it to the troops. Another war ends and another group of men and women came home addicted to smoking from the free tobacco handed to them. The economy begins an upward trend and veterans have jobs and money in their pockets to pay for their tobacco addiction.
By the time of the Korean Conflict, America was weary of fighting. There were no stars traveling America to encourage patriotism. But that didn’t stop cigarettes from being included in C-rations. According to an entry in a forum from a man whose father served in Korean, ” he claimed the army was generous with smokes because studies had shown GI’s who smoked were more likely to volunteer for extra duties and special operations.” Another time of fighting, another group coming home addicted to nicotine.
Vietnam was another unpopular time but cigarettes were there for the troops in their rations. Although there was already evidence by 1964 that smoking was hazardous to your health, it wasn’t until 1975 that the practice of cigarettes in rations ended. Smoking in the military reached a high of over 50% in 1980.
Even with all the documentation about the health effects of tobacco use, many in the military believe it is their personal freedom to use tobacco. While smoking rates in the general population are at about 15%, rates in the military are at 24%. This “freedom” is a burden on our military to the tune of “approximately $1.9 billion a year to cover medical care linked to tobacco use, as well as lost productivity.” It exacts a heavy toll on the health of our older veterans who are addicted and living with tobacco-related health issues. Their health struggles now should serve as a warning to younger military servicemen and women about the dangers of tobacco use.
According to Senator Dick Durbin, “One in three members of the military today says they started using tobacco after they enlisted. Why? Well, because we make it easy for them,” Congress and the Department of Defense are looking at banning sales of tobacco on military bases to try to cut tobacco use rates, but critics are arguing that it is unfair to ban tobacco because service members are already “making significant sacrifices.” One critic, Rep Duncan Hunter, a Marine reservist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, claims that while the men and women in uniform are out fighting for your freedom, you are taking away theirs by attempting to ban tobacco sales at military exchange stores. His amendment “which prohibits the military from restricting the sale of legal products already sold in military stores,” was “overwhelmingly approved by the House Armed Services Committee, 53-9.
Times have changed. While states are looking at raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21 to keep youth from starting to use tobacco, the military exchanges sell tobacco at discounted rates, making it easier and cheaper for our military to start a deadly habit. Those outside of the military understand the need to limit tobacco use among the troops, not as a punishment or to make life more difficult, but to protect their health now and in the future. The only winner in this tobacco war is the tobacco industry, and they and their proponents will fight all the way to the bank.
Links used for this blog can be found in the highlighted words. Check out the following links to read more about the military and tobacco:
Up in Smoke?
Rates of Smoking Are Down, But Still High in the Military