Help military ban tobacco

When Hawaii made public health history by being the first state to raise the smoking age to 21 this year, the military applauded the move. Several bases in Hawaii said they would comply with the law.

“We see it as a fitness and readiness issue,” Bill Doughty, spokesman for the Navy Region Hawaii, told the Associated Press. “When we can prevent sailors from smoking or using tobacco, if we can get them to quit, then that improves their fitness and readiness, and it saves them a ton of money too.”

Which makes sense and raises the question: Why doesn’t the military ban smoking? Starting with ending the sale of cigarettes at its base commissaries? Well, it turns out, the Pentagon has tried to restrict smoking for years, only to be thwarted by political interests every time. Which is to say Congress. Here is that body’s smoking gun, hypocritical, oxymoronic response to a 2014 request by the Navy to restrict cigarette sales on bases and ships:

The House Armed Services Committee added language to its annual defense authorization bill, forbidding defense officials from enacting “any new policy that would limit, restrict, or ban the sale of any legal consumer product category” on military installations.

Despite this pessimistic track record, the timing is perfect to try again, now that the military is not actively recruiting soldiers to immediately send into combat, as was the case during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Many, many more soldiers, and citizens, die from smoking than from war. More than 480,000 Americans die from smoking and secondhand smoke exposure every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — more than died on the battlefields of World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined, Mother Jones reported.

Military health officials reported that tobacco costs the military around $1.6 billion a year in health expenses, while profits from military store sales for 2012 totaled $125.7 million, according to the Daily Caller News Foundation. About 1 in 4 members of all military branches smoke, compared with about 1 in 5 of the general population. But the percentages differ across the military: While about 30 percent of Marines smoke, members of the Air Force and Coast Guard smoke less than the national average, as do officers in all branches, according to a Bloomberg View editorial.

Which means, as Bloomberg notes, that the military has branches and personnel to emulate when it comes to attempts to become tobacco-free, which is important since members of Congress refuse to listen to military leaders when they think any given action might hurt their home state. For example, just as it won’t ban tobacco sales when asked, Congress continues to buy weapons for the military that its leaders say they don’t need. In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, Congress funded $120 million for Abrams tank upgrades, even as the Army testified it didn’t need more tanks, reported.

States can help the military and citizens, in spite of Congress, by emulating Hawaii and raising the smoking age to 21. We reiterate our strong endorsement of the current bills in the Legislature to raise the age to 21 here. It’s the healthy, and patriotic, action to take.

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