Should We Have a Tobacco-Free Military?

Do US military service members need tobacco? Many think so, and say it is built in to the “warrior culture.”

Despite tobacco’s distinction as the leading cause of preventable death, disease and disability in the US, smoking and chewing it is more socially acceptable in the military than in civilian circles. In fact, nearly 30 percent of our armed forces use it.

That could be due to special accommodations that not only enable tobacco use, but also encourage it. Soldiers get additional work breaks to smoke cigarettes, which commissaries deeply discount—along with “smokeless” tobacco such as chewing tobacco, dipping tobacco, snuff and a variation of snuff called and snus.

The armed forces provide comprehensive tobacco-dependence treatment services for soldiers who want to quit. Unfortunately, consistent messaging about the detrimental effects of tobacco use is absent from military culture.

Most veterans–74 percent–report current or past smoking, and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the second most common health condition after cancer. “Smokeless” tobacco can cause cancer in the mouth, tongue, cheek, gums, throat, esophagus, stomach and pancreas, according to the American Cancer Society. Oral lesions and receding gums are other common risks, as are damage to tooth enamel, cavities, tooth decay, tooth loss and bone loss at the roots of teeth.

Serving in our armed forces should not be a risk factor for tobacco initiation and use, according to a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. “The argument that tobacco is a necessity for military service members [to relieve stress] devalues their long-term quality of life and ignores the military’s obligation to provide healthy, effective means of stress relief to service members,” the authors wrote.

For help with quitting tobacco, enroll in free services throughout the New York metro area from the North Shore-LIJ Health System.

Members of the military, veterans and their families can find personalized, compassionate care through our service centers.

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