Smoke 'em if you got 'em. The Pentagon reassured troops Wednesday that it won't ban tobacco products in war zones.
Defense officials hadn't actually planned to eliminate smoking - at least for now. Butarose among some troops after the Defense Department received a study recommending the military move toward becoming tobacco-free - perhaps in about 20 years.
Press secretary Geoff Morrell pointedly told a Pentagon news conference that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is not planning to prohibit the use of cigarettes, chewing tobacco or other tobacco products by troops in combat.
"He knows that the situation they are confronting is stressful enough as it is," Morrell said, noting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I don't think he is interested in adding to the stress levels by taking away one of the few outlets they may have to relieve stress."
Gates will review the new study to see if there are some things that can be done to work toward the goal of having a smoke-free force some day, Morrell said.
"Obviously, it's not our preference to have a force that is using tobacco products," he said, noting health concerns and the high cost of caring for health-related problems.
The study, commissioned by the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department, recommended that the military start making incremental moves toward becoming smoke-free. The report by the Institute of Medicine suggested the services could start by banning smoking at military academies, then among recruits. It said the VA and Pentagon should eliminate use of tobacco on its facilities and the military should stop selling tobacco products at its commissaries.
The military and VA have been working for years to reduce smoking among soldiers and vets through a number of programs. The Pentagon laid out a plan in 1999 to reduce smoking rates by 5 percent a year and reduce chewing tobacco use to 15 percent by 2001 - and still wasn't able to achieve the goals.
"Tobacco use declined overall from 1980 to 2005, but there has recently been an increase in consumption, possibly because of increased tobacco use by deployed troops," the study said.
The military hasn't placed a high enough priority on reducing tobacco use, according to the study, and that while smoking has declined in the U.S., it remains higher in the military than in the civilian world.
In 2005, a third of members of the active-duty military smoked compared to a fifth of the adult U.S. population, the study said, adding that it "has been implicated in" higher dropout rates during and after basic training, higher absenteeism in the military and other problems.
Criticism of the proposals spread across the Internet and among troops.
"Our troops make enough sacrifices to serve our nation," said Brian Wise, executive director of the advocacy group Military Families United. "They give up many of the freedoms civilians enjoy already without being told they cannot partake in yet another otherwise legal activity."
Spc. Charles Rodriguez, 23, said he started smoking long before he joined the Army and that his pack-a-day habit doesn't affect his physical fitness. His Army instructors during basic training made him quit, but he quickly started up again, Rodriguez said in an interview outside of Fort Campbell, Ky.
During his last deployment to Iraq, Rodriguez found a lot of time to smoke while troops were patrolling or just hanging around the base. He said one of his friends who doesn't normally smoke would join him for a cigarette during the deployment, just out of boredom
Said Rodriguez, "There's nothing else to do and they're cheap over there."