Saturday, September 5, 2009
The military always seems to lag behind the rest of society in making changes.
The military was behind the curve in desegregating its troops. It was behind in allowing women into its military academies and into other areas of service. Right now it’s behind in accepting gays.
But the foot dragging in those areas is nothing compared to the shuffling around the issue of reducing the use of tobacco.
The rest of society, while sometimes kicking and screaming, has adapted to no smoking in bars, restaurants, workplaces and even jails and prisons. It’s not easy for some people, but with nicotine patches, gum and counseling, they have managed it.
In 2005, one-third of active-duty military smoked, compared with one-fifth of the adult U.S. population. Since then, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have increased smoking in the military.
Whenever the tobacco topic comes up it is quickly crushed.
In 1999 the Pentagon proposed a plan to reduce smoking rates by 5 percent a year by 2001. If that had been a war it would have ended with unconditional surrender.
Now a Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department study recommends moving toward a tobacco-free military — in 20 years.
Gee, folks. Don’t rush or anything.
The idea that their cigarettes could be taken away has some troops jittery. They remind people that particularly those in war zones are under extreme stress.
That is actually one of the best reasons for eliminating tobacco.
Ellen Hahn, a professor who runs the University of Kentucky’s Tobacco Policy Research Program, says smoking initially eases stress, but then it creates it. Nicotine withdrawal makes people feel more stressed out and irritable.
Scientists have also found that nicotine probably makes post-traumatic stress worse. Nearly 20 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan — about 300,000 people — have post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
We are not doing these warriors any favors by allowing them to smoke and by continuing to have military commissaries selling cigarettes at heavily discounted prices.
If trying to keep our military healthy isn’t enough of a reason to begin weaning them off tobacco, maybe money will speak louder.
The Defense Department spends more than $1.6 billion a year in medical care and lost work days because of tobacco. The Veterans Administration has spent more than $5 billion to treat veterans for tobacco-related illnesses.
Those are your taxes at work. Wouldn’t it be better if they could be working doing something else?
Right now there are all kinds of dire predictions about what would happen if the screws were to tighten on the military’s tobacco pipeline. The biggest doom-and-gloom prophets foresee the end of the volunteer army as troops quit in huge numbers.
The same thing was said when blacks integrated the service. The same thing was said when women entered the academies.
It’s time for the military to join the rest of us in the 21st century.