Pentagon’s War on Tobacco Fails

FEATURE: The Defense Department Tried to Get Me to Quit Smoking. It Didn’t Work

Marlboro Marine / Facebook
January 6, 2015

George S. Patton once came upon a dying man at the 15th Evacuation Hospital at Sant' Agata during the Sicilian invasion. He sparked a cigarette and placed it in the young soldier’s mouth. He smacked a shell-shocked trooper for cowardice moments later.

The slap surely would have ended Patton’s career were he serving in today’s Army. The act of comfort to the dying man probably would as well.

The Department of Defense is trying to extinguish the cigarettes of our nation’s servicemen. The War on Terror reversed some of the gains in the fight against tobacco as smoking rates jumped 13 percent following 9/11. Troops are 50 percent more likely than the general population to smoke and are four times more likely to use smokeless tobacco.

Acting U.S. Surgeon General Rear Adm. Boris Lushniak declared in December that the fight against tobacco is America’s longest war. Lushniak, a self-described "avid long-distance bicyclist, runner, hiker, and kayaker", told the Association of Military Surgeons that eliminating tobacco among the ranks was a top priority.

"We still have a mission when it comes to tobacco, which is eradication, and that mission is obtainable," he said.

The Obama administration has indicated that it will embrace total war tactics to wipe out the dread cancer stick. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel floated the idea of banning all tobacco products on military installations in March. That effort went nowhere, but the military added a new weapon to its arsenal in the War on Phillip Morris in 2014. The SmokefreeMil website allows soldiers to sign up for daily text reminders about the advantages of quitting, as well as tips on how to stay on the wagon. The military’s health system, Tricare, held a teleconference on November 20th to introduce the free program.

"It's not judgmental. No one else knows if you want to be a private person and do this on your own," Tricare spokesman Paul Fitzpatrick told me. "It's not going to be overbearing. It's there to be a reminder."

I signed up for the service immediately and was harangued for six weeks with an onslaught of self-help mumbo jumbo, obtuse can-do patronization, and sentimental slop. Aside from the deployment of military jargon—"find a battle buddy," "HOOAH," "have a cookoff for top grill Sergeant," etc.—the texts read like motivational cat posters.

"Energy & persistence conquer all things. This is the beginning of a new you," the New Years Eve text said.

If the text service seems like it was written for teenagers, that’s because it was. The National Institute of Health developed the program in 2011 as a way of cutting back on the teen tobacco rate. Texts saying "We know it’s not easy but it’s totally worth it," "your feelings matter," and "keep on keeping on," resonated, decreasing high school tobacco use.

The messages may not play as well among our nation’s warriors. These are men that conquered Fallujah and survived the Konar Province. Quitting smoking is probably not "one of the hardest things [they’ll] ever do."  The fact that "smokers are more likely to have cavities & lose teeth at a younger age" may scare the pants off of braces-clad, acne-bedazzled adolescents, but Marines have seen their comrades lose far more consequential body parts.

Recipients are also treated to some suspect facts. "Quitting can help reduce belly fat," we’re told. An analysis conducted within the military produced a very different conclusion. Tobacco curbs the appetite and quitting increases the risk of obesity. An analysis of smoking cessation programs found that the weight gain attributed to giving up tobacco would threaten the career prospects of ex-smokers.

The texts don’t just focus on health issues. Soldiers are advised to quit for financial reasons. "1 pack a day a year is over $1,900!" And it’s about to get more expensive thanks to Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.)

Durbin is at the tip of the spear in the battle against Big Tobacco, sticking his nose in everything from military cigarettes to Major League Baseball chew. He jacked up tobacco prices at military bases on his way out the door as chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee. This year will mark the first time that U.S. troops pay full retail on cigarettes and chew thanks to a rider that Democrats slipped into the National Defense Authorization Act.

Durbin painted the surgical strike against soldiers’ wallets as an act of love.

"Discounting tobacco products lures even more servicemen and women into this unhealthy and deadly addiction. Ending this price subsidy is a commonsense reform that will protect the health of our nation’s troops," Durbin said in a release. "I look forward to reviewing the Defense Department’s upcoming evaluation of tobacco use in the military, and to working with the Department to tackle this culture of tobacco use head on."

The texts don’t just try to scare soldiers into submission. They offer friendly tips on how to take one’s mind off the habit.

"Rewarding yourself for staying smokefree can keep you motivated. Use a non-food reward such as going to the movies, dancing, or on a vacation," one text said. But don’t pat yourself on the back too much because "celebrations can be a smoking trigger."

Other suggestions included doing yoga and treating oneself to fancy meals. Sources tell me, however, that Afghanistan suffers from a shortage of yoga studios.

Fitzpatrick, the Tricare spokesman and retired military officer, pooh-poohed the idea that troops are using tobacco to deal with battlefield stress during the Nov. 20 teleconference.

"Smoking is not a stress relief," he said. The DOD recommends other methods for dealing with the horrors of war. Instead of lighting up, troops should "press your fingers between your eyes and above your nose. Hold for 30 seconds."

Pawing one’s face following a firefight has not caught on in the field. Smoking correlates strongly to how close one comes to combat (Marines are twice as likely to smoke as Airmen) and the vast majority of military tobacco use takes place on deployment, receding to normal levels when troops return home. Only 16 percent of Air Force personnel identify as smokers, but that number jumps to 63 percent on deployment—a 400 percent increase. Three out of four light-to-moderate smokers on deployment cite stress and the need to calm down for taking up the habit.

"You ask me what we need to win this war. I answer, tobacco as much as bullets." So said World War I General John Pershing. "If you can’t send money, send tobacco," George Washington implored Revolutionary War supporters. They understood the importance of morale among our fighting force—a factor that is curiously absent from the anti-tobacco true believers. Tobacco can inspire joy amidst chaos. One need look no further than Cigars Direct, which mails troops stogies free of charge.

troops cigars

"Thanks so much for your support and your extremely generous donation of Cigars and humidor," an Army infantry Captain said in an email to the company. "My platoon went out on a mission this morning and detained a Al-Qaeda terrorist that we’ve been going after for a while. After a long day we returned to our combat outpost and broke out the Cigars for a celebration. It was perfect timing and YOU made a lot of soldiers very happy." He attached photos of his soldiers smiling ear-to-ear doing one-handed push-ups and posing with their M4s.

The DOD evidently prefers that soldiers dabble in Yoga Across America’s Yoga for American Soldiers program. The YAA website features grim-faced and overweight Army veterans striking such popular Yoga poses as "Tree" and "Triangle"—and definitely not smiling.

soldier yoga

Stress and morale are not the only factors to consider when looking at military smoking. The military tends to attract high testosterone and adventure-seeking individuals, the devil-may-care types willing to put their lives in jeopardy. How else do recruiters convince a young man to abandon the comforts of the most prosperous nation in history to go spend time under fire in third world hellholes? Smokers generally have higher testosterone and thrill-seeking tendencies when they make the decision to start smoking. The Naval Health Research Center found that 80 percent of male Marine recruits used tobacco prior to enlisting with 41 percent registering as regular smokers.

Barring these recruits sits well with the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine. A 2009 IOM report commissioned by the Pentagon recommended a complete purge targeting enlistees.

"The committee finds that achieving a tobacco-free military begins by closing the pipeline of new tobacco users entering the military and by promoting cessation programs to ensure abstinence," the report said.

The science is of course sound. No one argues that tobacco is a health boon. Health, however, is not the chief policy goal of our military—fighting is. Cracking down on tobacco use may seem like straightforward policy, but the Pentagon may be hindering the recruitment of the very individuals it needs on the battlefield when the gunfire begins. Patton, Eisenhower, Puller, Pershing, all smokers. Beloved Marine Corps General James Mattis marveled at the prospect of lighting up a cigar following victory in Fallujah. One would be hard-pressed to find a military historian willing to argue that the country would have been better off without them. MacArthur stepping onto the Philippines, pipe cockily gritted between his teeth wouldn’t have the same effect if instead of puffing away he sat down in the sand and executed a perfect "Tree" pose, now would it?

The average grunt in World War II smoked constantly. A Cal State researcher estimates that soldiers consumed 55 billion cigarettes in the last six months of 1944 alone, as troops inhaled five to seven packs a week. The daily rations they wolfed down at Iwo Jima and Normandy came with four cigarettes per meal to make the gruel worthwhile. The trend continued through the Vietnam War until the Pentagon removed cigarettes from rations in 1975. Our troops still ingest questionable food on the battlefield; they just don’t get the payoff anymore.

So why is the military going to all this trouble to purge smoking from the ranks? Why risk hurting morale and banning a popular coping mechanism for beleaguered and overworked soldiers? The military insists that it’s all about budget efficiency. Tricare says smoking-related diseases—which are classified as pretty much any breathing malady whether a soldier smoked or not—cost the heath system billions. The military’s own budgetary analysis, however, found that smoking cessation actually costs the system more money. "Lifetime reduction in medical expenditures from improved health ($5,600) would be offset by additional expenditures resulting from prolonged life ($7,300)," per individual, according to one study.

Fitzpatrick said that the move is all about combat effectiveness. "Smoking increases wound healing time" and "smokers have more illnesses," he said on the teleconference. The text messages back this up. "Strong healthy bones are another benefit of quitting," one text said. That message might be more convincing if the Obama administration wasn’t trying to flood the infantry with female soldiers who have weaker bones, longer wound healing time, and more absences than their male counterparts in training and combat.

The DOD can say it’s about health and safety and cutting costs all they want, but it’s really about signaling to Capitol Hill that the Pentagon Brass is on the right side of history. They share Washington’s values, not those of the grunts. Hagel’s handling of smoking in the ranks demonstrated the White House’s approach to the military nicely.

"We don’t allow smoking in any of our government buildings," Hagel told reporters to justify the proposed ban. The military is just like any other federal agency as far as he’s concerned, and the battlefield is just another office setting. Combat isn’t a place where people risk their lives, it’s merely an opportunity for promotion.

The White House recognizes that there is one important difference between the military and the rest of the federal workforce, not to mention the larger civilian population: only one branch of the federal government calls the president the Commander in Chief. Federal bureaucrats and average citizens don’t have Fort Leavenworth hanging over their heads if they desert their posts. No soldier enjoys this luxury. Obeying orders is his job. He follows them knowing they could result in his death. This grave responsibility warrants a certain degree of humility.

So perhaps Obama will draw the line at smoking, given his own habit. Perhaps he’ll recognize that every soldier deserves the stress relief that he embraces in the Rose Garden as he ponders his next executive order. Perhaps he’ll put an end to this quagmire and let troops be troops.

I wouldn’t hold my breath. But I’d have a hard time doing that anyway. The Pentagon’s cheery texts only reinvigorated my Marlboro intake.

Published under: Feature , Military