FORWARD OPERATING BASE FALCON, Iraq – Gen. Douglas MacArthur had his signature corncob pipe. Soldiers got cigarettes in their C-rations during World War II. Even today, America’s war on tobacco seems to have largely bypassed the military.
Now a proposal to make the forces smoke-free is drawing strong reactions from troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though the Pentagon itself says any ban is a long way off.
The troops’ fears – and, in some cases, hopes – were triggered by a study commissioned by the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department that recommends moving toward a tobacco-free military, perhaps in about 20 years.
“Your nerves get all rattled and you need something to calm you down,” said Staff Sgt. Jerry Benson, of San Bernardino, Calif., with the 5th Stryker Brigade in southern Afghanistan.
Benson, a tall, thin redhead with a buzz cut, said his first attempt to quit smoking was foiled by stress from a roadside bombing in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates seems to agree.
“He knows that the situation they are confronting is stressful enough as it is,” said his press secretary, Geoff Morrell. “I don’t think he is interested in adding to the stress levels by taking away one of the few outlets they may have to relieve stress.”
He said Gates is not planning any ban, but is reviewing the study by the Institute of Medicine, which provides independent advice to policymakers, health professionals and the public, to see if steps can be taken toward having a smoke-free force someday.
Some U.S. military personnel and veterans interviewed by the Associated Press said a ban would cut medical costs and make the force healthier, while eliminating smoking breaks would increase productivity. Others said it would dampen morale and reduce recruitment.
Nearly all, however, said it was impractical and probably would never happen.
While smoking has declined in the U.S. civilian population, it remains high in the military despite various measures such as designating smoking areas.
In 2005, a third of the active-duty military smoked compared with a fifth of the adult U.S. population, the Institute of Medicine study said. Tobacco use in the military declined overall from 1980 to 2005, but is now reflecting the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Smoking rates among military personnel returning from both war zones may be 50 percent higher than among those not deployed, according to the study, which argues that the military has not tackled the problem as a priority.
To the troops who say smoking relaxes them, Ellen Hahn, an expert, explains that their stress is also a result of tobacco, because nicotine acts as both a stimulant and a depressant.
“For people who are in stressful situations much like the military, if you haven’t had a cigarette in two hours, you’re going to feel stressed out and irritable, and it’s mostly because of the withdrawal,” said Hahn, a professor who runs the University of Kentucky’s Tobacco Policy Research Program.
Smokers are easy to find at the Falcon base, perched on railings in the designated smoking areas, using soft-drink cans for ashtrays.
“Smoking has been proven bad for your health, but it’s a choice. It’s not illegal. Drunk driving is illegal,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Alexander Roehm, 23, of Cincinnati, who smokes 10 to 20 cigarettes a day and also chews tobacco. “Look at the movies. Smoking is one of the things you always see with Vietnam and World War II films. In World War II, smoking was a big thing. My grandpa used to say that cigarettes were one of the big things that they were real happy to get. It was just something to do.”
Inside a smoke-free building at the base, however, Maj. Mathew Fitch, engineer for the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, was cheering the prospect of a smoking ban.
The 40-year-old nonsmoker said cigarettes not only impair a soldier’s health, but burn up productivity because every hour or two, somebody goes out and rounds up buddies for a puff.
“A smoke break can be a 20-minute affair,” said Fitch, of Charlotte, N.C.
At Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan, cigarette butts litter a courtyard.
Army Staff Sgt. Bob Flores, with the 5th Stryker Brigade from Fort Lewis, Wash., said he and his wife have agreed to quit together – pushed by their 8-year-old son – but only when he gets home.
“It’s not the best time now – the stress of being here, and her being home alone,” he said.
Tobacco costs the Defense Department more than $1.6 billion a year in medical care and lost work days, while the Veterans Administration has spent more than $5 billion to treat veterans for tobacco-related illnesses. Both have been working for years to reduce smoking among soldiers and vets.
The Pentagon laid out a plan in 1999 to reduce smoking rates by 5 percent a year by 2001 – and couldn’t achieve the goal. Meanwhile, military commissaries still sell cigarettes at heavy discounts.
During his deployment in Iraq in 2005, Spc. Will Pike, 25, of Boston, said his 3rd Infantry Division combat engineer company tried to ban smoking. He quit for five months, then started puffing again.
“Everybody went completely crazy,” said Pike. “If you take it away from us entirely, you’re going to have some very angry soldiers.”