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New Report: Tobacco Use Impairs Military Readiness

July 13, 2009

FT. LEWIS, Wash. - The days when American soldiers got cigarettes with their food rations are long gone, but the military has higher smoking rates than the general public. A new report by the federal Institute of Medicine lends support to the idea of a tobacco-free military, citing the huge financial burden smokers have become to the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

More than 65,000 Washington residents are in the U.S. military, and about one-third of them use tobacco - at least, for now. The Department of Defense says it could save more than $800 million a year in medical costs and lost productivity by not allowing soldiers to smoke or chew.

According to the federal Institute of Medicine report, tobacco use impairs military readiness and harms soldiers' health. Institute physician Ken Kizer is one of the report authors.

"Tobacco has adverse effects on attention and on night vision; it increases the likelihood of motor vehicle accidents; and if you happen to get injured, wounds don't heal as well among those who smoke."

The report says 32 percent of active-duty personnel and 22 percent of veterans are smokers, adding that rates among active-duty soldiers have increased since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, Army and Air Force commissaries sell tobacco products but Navy and Marine Corps locations do not. Critics of a possible ban point out that the profits from tobacco sales help pay for recreation and family programs on military bases.

Kizer notes that a smoking ban would take up to 20 years to fully implement. At least the report includes a number of recommendations to get started, he says.

"We could begin by eliminating the sale, at discounted prices, of tobacco products at the commissaries, and by making the military worksite tobacco-free."

The report, "Combating Tobacco Use in Military and Veteran Populations," is available from National Academies Press by calling (202)334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242, or online at www.nap.edu.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA