- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Combat troops put their lives on the line every day, but there is one risk the government considers too dangerous for them — smoking.

“Combating Tobacco Use in Military and Veteran Populations,” a new report by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, advocates restricting smoking in the military and limiting recruitment of those who smoke. As with so many government regulations, this proposed ban may actually do the opposite of what is hoped and put soldiers’ lives in danger.

Troops returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan “may be” 50 percent more likely to use tobacco than military personnel who have not been deployed, according to the report. We wouldn’t be surprised if troops in the field had even higher rates of tobacco use — but for legitimate reasons.

Cigarettes, and tobacco in general, can relieve stress. They make people more alert and calm at the same time, which are two dispositions soldiers in dangerous areas need. There is a lot of tension on duty when lives are on the line; it can be hard to keep attention focused, especially when troops haven’t slept in days. Just letting one’s mind wander for a second could mean lost lives.

Giving out cigarettes also can help soldier’s win local hearts and minds. Sharing a smoke puts strangers at ease and lends itself to conversation. In Iraq’s western Anbar Province, an al Qaeda smoking ban was so unpopular that it is credited with helping push tribes to support U.S. troops.

The new 240-page government report has no discussion of these trade-offs. It puts great weight on the fact that tobacco use in the military has increased since 1998, “threatening to reverse the steady decline of the last several decades.” But it ignores the most obvious explanation for the increase: Today’s troops are in combat much more than those a decade ago, and they understand the benefits. Smoking helps keep them alive in those dangerous circumstances.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has no intention of banning smoking in war zones since the troops are “under enormous stress and strain, and the secretary does not want to compound that stress by taking away one of the few outlets they may have to relieve that stress.” But he noted that the secretary “shares the concerns of those who prepared the report about the health and well-being of the force and understands the administration’s goal of a smoke-free America.” We hope that political correctness does not one day take away one of the few pleasures our troops enjoy overseas. Smoking may be hazardous to your health, but so are roadside bombs.


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