The Pentagon has carved out a new front – one that pits it against Big Tobacco and those in Congress who do its bidding.
Many military leaders recognize that smoking negatively affects military members’ health and finances, and they hope to slash tobacco use by 2020. The Navy has been the most aggressive of the branches, having already ended discounted prices that undercut civilian sales by about 25 percent. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wants to go even further by banning tobacco sales at the service’s retail stores and aboard vessels.
The Pentagon’s concern about the effect of cheap tobacco products is justified. The discounted prices likely contribute to the fact that service members use tobacco at higher rates than civilians; 24 percent of troops smoke compared to 20 percent of civilians of the same age.
But Big Tobacco has a long reach in Congress, which has blocked the military’s efforts to get tough on smoking. Apparently tobacco profits are more important than service members’ health or mission readiness; the House defense-authorization bill currently includes language that would require all branches of the military to continue selling cheap smokes.
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It’s one thing for service members and retirees to be able to buy discounted food and products at military stores, undercutting nearby civilian merchants. But cigarettes and other tobacco products should be in a different category because of the serious damaging they can have on users’ health. The price for that damage is paid not only by smokers but by nonsmokers as well, who have to subsidize their health care when they develop lung and heart problems.
The military leaders who want to kick tobacco to the curb need help from health advocates, who have been hesitant to strongly support anti-tobacco efforts that affect service members. Perhaps they think that would come off as being anti-troops. In the long run, however, that advocacy would be very pro-troops.
Groups including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association should offer strong support for military leaders’ anti-tobacco efforts. And the Senate should block the House’s attempt to carry water for tobacco companies.