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The Journal Gazette

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018 1:00 am

'Addictive path to poor health'

We must disentangle military, smoking cultures

Tammy Taylor

Tammy Taylor is a parent and Fort Wayne resident who works with Tobacco Free Allen County. 

You would be surprised to see how many men and women did not smoke until joining the military.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that military service is a risk factor for smoking: “U.S. veterans and service members smoke at significantly higher rates than the general population. About 74 percent of veterans report a history of cigarette use, compared with 48 percent in the nonveteran population. Military service members who experience combat exposure are at even higher risk of initiating or resuming smoking.”

According to Steve Schwab, executive director of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation: “Members of the military smoke at higher rates than the general population, in part due to tobacco industry manipulation to help foster a culture of tobacco use in the military.”

The military population always has been a test market for many experiments; this is no different. All too often when I talk to veterans who smoke, they tell me they started in the military because cigarettes were free in their Meal, Ready to Eat packages or their leaders shared cigarettes to help them destress.

(Military personnel are sometimes said to need tobacco for stress relief; however, tobacco users in the military report higher levels of stress than do nonusers, so perhaps the stress being relieved actually derives from nicotine withdrawal).

According to the CDC research team: “Tobacco use has been a part of military culture since World War I, when cigarettes became widely available; service members were issued cigarettes with their rations to help them escape the tedium of war, boost morale, and offer pleasure, comfort, and currency.”

Currently, the Department of Defense is trying to change the culture of tobacco by combating it from within. But as we know, this takes time and collaboration from others who have an interest in the well-being of our troops.

A study from the National Cancer Institute found that, among adolescent smokers displaying symptoms of nicotine addiction such as difficulty quitting and a craving for cigarettes, half these young smokers displayed such symptoms within two months of starting to smoke occasionally (at least once a month). Some 33 percent reported symptoms of addiction when smoking at a rate of only one day a month, 49 percent by the time they were smoking one day a week, and 70 percent before they became daily smokers.

This study has helped to identify why so many men and women in the military have continued to smoke even after their service obligation, but also why it did not take long to become an addict.

Why am I passionate? I am a wife and mom of two military men.

I hear people in the legislature and the community – most of whom have never served – say, “I will not raise the smoking age to 21 because if they can sign up to serve, then I cannot justify upping the tobacco age.” This argument is not justifiable when the drinking age is 21.

I have a real concern when others want to keep our men and women on an addictive path to poor health. The military already has so many barriers to better health; now their “supporters” are the biggest of them all. I would prefer someone in office to keep our military personnel healthy and ready to go when needed, rather than justifying why it is OK to smoke.

“Smoking has a devastating effect on the health of individuals and on military readiness,” said Maj. Gen. Jimmie Keenan. The four areas that affect readiness are physical, sights and sounds, risk of injury, and lost days worked.

It will be a challenge to change the internal military culture – because of outside forces. I encourage everyone to vote for people who will look out for the health of the military community rather than justifying smoking because of a false narrative. The military is trying to combat this addiction; they understand and see every day the personal destruction and harm tobacco use takes on the overall mission. This will take courage and a moral conviction to help our troops choose a healthy lifestyle for the good of the country.