Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.) is fighting to protect service members’ right to use tobacco, offering an amendment that would stop the Pentagon’s plans to ban the sale of the product on base.
"We sleep in the dirt for this country," said Hunter, who quit his job after 9/11 to join the Marine Corps. "We get shot at for this country. But we can’t have a cigarette if we want to for this country, because that’s unhealthy."
Hunter offered an amendment during a House Armed Services Committee markup of fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Wednesday evening. The amendment would guarantee that no products that were legally for sale in commissaries and bases at the beginning of the year could be banned.
"The reason I bring this up is because we’ve had interference from the Secretary of the Navy and others that think guys like me when we served in the Marine Corps, they’re going to tell us that we can’t buy soda, we can’t buy chewing tobacco, we can’t buy beer, we can only buy 2 percent milk," Hunter said. "We don’t want that to happen."
"Especially for the enlisted ranks and the young officers, it’s important that what few amenities we get to keep when we join the service and give our lives up to Uncle Sam for four years, that those amenities, we get to keep them," he said. "That’s what [the amendment] does."
Democrats on the committee objected to Hunter’s proposal.
Rep. Susan Davis (D., Calif.) said promoting health is just as important as military readiness, and that the Pentagon’s proposal is not telling military men and women "they can’t use tobacco."
"I think we need to look at smoking cessation programs, we need to look at what’s out there now, and try and improve on those," she said. "This is not telling people that they can’t use tobacco, clearly people can go across the street almost wherever they are and purchase that. But we are sending a kind of double message, I think, by not saying that we recognize tobacco can cause damage, not only to a sailor, but also to their family, second hand smoke we know is a concern."
"But the issue of readiness, we know that that’s affecting the ability of the men and women who serve to do their job," Davis said.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has endorsed the idea of prohibiting tobacco sales on ships and bases, saying, "we owe it our people."
"I don’t know if there’s anybody in America who still thinks that tobacco is good for you," Hagel said. "We don’t allow smoking in any of our government buildings. Restaurants, states, [and] municipalities have pretty clear regulations on this. I think in reviewing any options that we have as to whether we in the military through commissaries [or] PXs sell or continue to sell tobacco is something we need to look at. And we are looking at it. And I think we owe it to our people."
Hunter, who served three combat tours, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, said his fellow Marines deserve the right to buy cigarettes and take them to the battlefield.
"As somebody who used the exchanges and lived on base for a number of years at Camp Pendleton, we do use the exchanges almost purely for beer and tobacco," he said. "The young Marines that go to war and fight for everybody in this room, they use those exchanges purely for tobacco, and some beer, sometimes water and Gatorades, little snacks to take to the field."
"Just because we join the military to serve this country doesn’t mean that we can’t do it comfortably in the smallest ways possible," Hunter said.
"We sleep in the dirt for this country. We get shot at for this country. But we can’t have a cigarette if we want to for this country, because that’s unhealthy," he said.
"Well, I’ll tell you what. If you want to make us all healthy, then let’s outlaw war, because war is really dangerous," Hunter added. "And it was bad for my health, and it’s bad for other people’s health. So if you truly want to make it so we’re all healthy, then we shouldn’t have a military at all, because that in and of itself is dangerous."
The committee adopted Hunter’s amendment by a voice vote.