Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1999-2004. Additionally, he worked in Iraq as a combat journalist in 2007.
Perhaps the most absurd bit of news to come out of Washington this week - and that's saying a lot - was the announcement by the Pentagon Office of Clinical and Program Policy that it is recommending a blanket ban on the usage of tobacco products by members of the U.S. military.
The recommendation comes after a Department of Defense-commissioned study by the anti-tobacco organization Institute of Medicine (IOM) reported that the negative health effects of tobacco use "cost the Pentagon $846 million a year in medical care and lost productivity." The report, which also claimed the Department of Veterans Affairs spends up to $6 billion in treatments for tobacco-related illnesses," says, "Given the critical need for a strong and healthy military, the harmful effects of tobacco use on military readiness, and the short- and long-term health and financial burden of tobacco use on military personnel, retirees, families, and veterans, the time has come for DoD and VA to assign high priority to tobacco con¬trol."
IOM recommended making all military installations tobacco-free zones and requiring new recruits to be tobacco-free, among other anti-tobacco measures. Though she did not comment on the proposed ban itself, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith told USA Today newspaper that "the [DOD] supports a smoke-free military and believes it is achievable."
As American As Apple Pie
Tobacco use is as ingrained a part of military culture as battlefield discipline and, for better or worse, swearing. At least one in three service members is a tobacco user of some sort, according to the IOM study - a number that is, if anything, understated. That number, unsurprisingly, grows far higher among those who are engaged in stressful combat operations.
There are few perks, and even fewer freedoms, associated with being a volunteer member of our armed forces. Long hours, harsh conditions, lengthy deployments far from home, and enemy fire are realities for these men and women who dedicate at least a portion of their lives to standing guard, on our behalf, on freedom's frontier.
The ability to purchase tax-free goods on military installations is one of those perks, and many soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines choose to use what small income they receive in exchange for their service to purchase tobacco products.
It is already shameful that nineteen- and twenty-year-olds who are considered adult enough to lead men into combat as noncommissioned officers are legally unable to consume alcohol; whether these men and women consume cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco because they help alleviate battlefield stressor because they simply enjoy consuming them, the ability to smoke a cigarette or "throw in a dip" is one which America's servicemembers shouldn't be begrudged.
Yes, tobacco has been proven to cause both short and long-term health problems - but are we really going to preach about health benefits of their activities to Americans we pay (albeit poorly) to be shot at for a living?
Besides an outright ban, raising prices on tobacco products purchased on military installations, combined with an aggressive anti-smoking campaign, has been suggested as an alternative path to smoking cessation. Proponents of such a move, which include anti-tobacco activist and "architect of California's anti-tobacco program" Kenneth Kinzer, accuse the military of complicating their eradication efforts by "subsidizing" the purchase of tobacco products purchased on military installations.
Such "subsidies" are, of course, the stuff of utter myth. Rather than having their purchases of tobacco products subsidized, military personnel, whose on-post purchases are almost entirely tax-free, actually pay the equivalent of a tax on their cigarettes and chew, making the prices higher than they would be otherwise.
The federal cigarette tax currently sits at $1.01 per pack. Though almost all goods purchased on military installations are tax-free, tobacco is handled differently than other products. By Department of Defense regulation, cigarettes must be priced 5% below "the lowest civilian competitor price," tax included. This means a $5 pack of cigarettes could be purchased on-post for $4.75 - not exactly a massive savings, and certainly not a "subsidy."
Further, much as our federal government depends on revenue from tobacco products to fund health care programs like its massive expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the military uses almost the entire remainder of the sale price that would have gone to the tobacco tax to fund Morale, Recreation, and Welfare (MWR) and much-needed spousal and family support programs.
Time, Effort Better Spent Elsewhere
The U.S. military is not a social Petri dish for use in engineering or experimentation, whatever Democrat presidents past and present may think. It has far greater responsibilities and concerns than whether or not its men and women, who continue to be the best in the world at what they do, engage in the safe and voluntary use of a 100% legal product.
Further, a policy banning tobacco use in the military - let alone in combat zones - either cannot, or will not, be enforced. I was in the military when the "no tobacco use inside military buildings" order came down from on high - and it was, among combat troops at least, almost universally ignored. Attempting to impose such silly, and laughably unenforceable, policies on our fighting men and women simply degrades military discipline, particularly among the junior enlisted ranks, by making a mockery of regulation as a whole.
IOM's appeal to the need for a "strong, healthy military," and its expressions of concern about the effect tobacco use has on physical fitness, is a non-starter, as well. Every branch of the military has physical fitness standards which must be met, regardless of bad habits or extracurricular activities. If soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines can meet the physical standards their respective chains of command have set for them, what they legally do in their own time should be considered entirely irrelevant, as it has been demonstrably shown to have no effect on their ability to meet those standards.
Finally, the fact that tobacco use by our military is receiving so much attention, and policies curbing or banning its use are receiving so much consideration, demonstrates a lack of seriousness on the topic of military affairs by far too many outside observers and civilian leaders, including the Secretary of Defense and those above him in the chain of command.
By Jeffrey P. Emanuel