A Ban on Tobacco Sales Might Be Coming to U.S. Military Bases

Pentagon officials and members of Congress want soldiers to be healthier, and that means prohibiting the purchase of cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco.

(Photo: Jenn Dyer/Flickr)

Oct 9, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

In America, turning 18 is marked by a slew of milestones: You can vote, join the military, and legally purchase cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco at the corner store. But if some members of Congress and the Pentagon have their way, people who choose to serve their country in the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines might soon be unable to buy the tobacco products of their choice on military bases and ships.

The ban has its roots in concerns about the health of military personnel.

“We demand that sailors and Marines be incredibly fit,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told Navy Times in March, when he proposed the idea of nixing cancer sticks and other tobacco goods from military commissaries. “We know tobacco hurts that fitness. We know the cost of health care far exceeds any profits we could possibly make selling that.”

Mabus has long been a foe of tobacco use in the military. In 2012 he announced that tobacco products would no longer be sold at a discount to Navy and Marine personnel. A 2013 study by the National Institutes of Health found “discounts on cigarettes [in military stores] to be as much as 73 percent below prices on comparable brands at the nearest WalMart.”

That same study found that the “culture of tobacco in the military is likely driven by factors such as the easy accessibility of tobacco products, including distribution systems created to ensure easy access even in theaters of war, liberal work breaks for smokers that are unavailable to non-smoking troops, socialization at designated smoking areas on military installations, and initiatives between the tobacco industry and military officials to promote tobacco use among troops.”

Another fascinating report from the National Institutes of Health details how tobacco companies have targeted soldiers since World War I. Although the U.S. military officially stopped including cigarettes in soldiers’ rations in 1975, Lorillard, Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson, and R.J. Reynolds were still allowed to send free cigarettes to soldiers serving in the 1990 Gulf War.

“Although we stopped distributing cigarettes to our service members as part of their rations, we continue to permit, if not encourage, tobacco use,” a recent Defense Department memo stated. “The prominence of tobacco products in retail outlets and permission for smoking breaks while on duty sustain the perception that we are not serious about reducing the use of tobacco.”

After Mabus proposed the out-and-out ban on tobacco sales across all branches of the armed services, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered Pentagon officials to conduct a study on the issue, which will be complete in November.

Two Democratic members of Congress—Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who is the chair of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee—are among the politicians championing the ban.

According to Politico, Durbin and Reed recently sent a letter to Mabus that includes some pretty damning tobacco-related statistics. They wrote that soldiers smoke at a 10 percent higher rate than civilians. Their letter also cited a 2009 Pentagon report showing that tobacco use costs the armed services about $1.9 billion in health care and lost productivity costs. In a speech in June, Durbin noted that one-third of members of the military say they began smoking after they enlisted.

“Why?” he asked. “Well, because we make it easy for them.”

Even though it’s bad for a person’s health, smoking is still legal in America—which means the anti-tobacco sales proposal has some advocates for the nation’s soldiers up in arms.

Duncan Hunter served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine reservist—and he also is a Republican member of Congress from California. He inserted an amendment into a defense authorization bill that would block the ban. The bill is set to be deliberated on by Congress in the fall.

“[Smoking is] not curbed for anybody else. Why pick out the folks who choose of their own accord to fight for their country and serve their country, and punish them?” Hunter told Politico. “Leave us the hell alone—we’re out here fighting for your freedom, and you’re taking away ours.”

Hunter has previously noted the irony of military officials concerning themselves with the health of soldiers.

“If you want to make us all healthy, then let’s outlaw war, because war is really dangerous,” he told Military Times.