Sunday, July 12, 2009

Can the U.S. Military Ban Smoking?

The U.S. military has been a walking, talking cigarette advertisement going back to World War II, when the army started distributing free cigarettes to the troops. Ever since, smoking rates in the military have been much higher than in the general population. You could almost say the tobacco companies owned the military.

But now, after a new report that tallies some of the costs of smoking to the military, the Pentagon says it has no choice but to eliminate smoking from its ranks. According to the report, it may take 20 years to do. The report says 30 percent of U.S. military personnel are smokers, probably intentionally lowballing this number to make the prospect of phasing out smoking seem more achievable.

Besides the obvious medical costs that result from smoking, the limited physical capacity of smokers is of special concern to the military. Smokers have less muscular strength and worse night vision, and they take more sick days and heal slower from injuries than non-smokers.

I think the military can eliminate smoking, maybe not in 20 years but surely in 25 or 30. If they want an example to follow, they might look at what has happened in radio over the last 30 years.

Walking into a U.S. radio station in 1979 was like walking into an ashtray. There was smoke everywhere and, by the end of the day, literally thousands of cigarettes filling ashtrays on almost every desk. It never made much sense, as the most important people in radio, the on-air personalities, news reporters, and sales representatives, all depended on the quality of their voices to do their work. For that matter, the tobacco smoke got into the grooves of the phonograph records that radio stations played at that time, adding a sort of nicotine static to every song you heard on the radio.

But all that changed in the 1980s and 1990s. Radio managers and executives started to think of radio stations as workplaces and cigarettes as a dangerous distraction from work. Gradually they banned cigarettes from studios and offices, and then from the entire facility. A few radio personalities who were caught smoking inside the building were suspended or fired. By now, the reputation of radio has been cleaned up enough that most people who smoke wouldn’t even think of trying to get a job in radio.

The military should be able to follow a similar path. There are steps it can take immediately to make cigarettes harder to get and reduce the smoking zones in military facilities. Over time, it can change the place that cigarettes occupy in military culture. And the ultimate result will be a healthier military with the kind of cost savings that are being found across society as people everywhere phase out the cigarette habit.