Smoking Up in Military

  • Published
  • By Samantha L. Quigley
  • AFPS
The death of broadcasting icon Peter Jennings from lung cancer last year again brought smoking and its dangers to the forefront of public consciousness.

Before his death on Aug. 7, 2005, Jennings admitted he was a longtime smoker.

While an estimated 25 percent of Americans smoke, the military's numbers hover at 34 percent, said Col. Gerald Wayne Talcott with the Air Force Medical Support Agency in Falls Church, Va.

That represents an increase of 4 percent for the military over a four-year period. According to the same data, 27 percent of the active-duty Air Force smokes, an increase of 1.3 percent over the same time frame.

"We do have a higher prevalence of smoking for our youngest people in the military," Talcott said. "Now, if you look at officers, that's not the case. But for our youngest members, that's our E-1s through E-4s ... the overall prevalence is a little bit higher than the national average.

"It's a good suspicion" that the war is a factor in the increase of military smokers, he said.

Service members who smoke often claim it is a stress reliever. Talcott said that might be true, but only for people who already are addicted. Before addiction occurs, smoking actually increases stress on the body, he said.

Smokers may see their habit as a personal risk, but many may not realize it affects force readiness, Talcott said. Even among smokers who have no ongoing diseases related to smoking, it impairs night vision, weakens the immune system and can lengthen healing time. Smokers also may have more frequent upper-respiratory ailments.

Tobacco use also affects families, the colonel said.

"We have a lot of young people (who) are just starting families," Talcott said. "It has an impact on those young children as well. If you're smoking around them, their risk for upper-respiratory infections goes up as well."

Smoking is a deceptive risk for younger people, since they do not necessarily feel the immediate ramifications. But, if a smoker quits, as more than 50 percent of Defense Department people who smoke have expressed a desire to do, there are benefits to be reaped ... not the least of which is an extended life.

"Your body has a very recuperative ability," Talcott said. "We have a very young population, so the sooner you quit and the less amount of time you smoke, the faster your body repairs itself. Within 10 to 15 years (of quitting smoking) your risk for cancer, if you quit early enough ... is almost the same as it would be for a nonsmoker."

Service members have multiple excuses for not quitting. The fear of failure or a failed first attempt often keeps smokers from trying to quit again, Talcott said. However, he said a failure does not mean that a second, or even a third, attempt is going to fail.

"You aren't always successful the first time," he said. "What we know is that it seems like the more people try to quit, the more likely they are to quit successfully."

Some smokers, especially women, are afraid to kick the smoking habit out of fear that they will gain weight. That is not a good enough excuse, Talcott said. A person would have to gain 100 pounds to equal the negative health effects of continued smoking, he said.

The weight-gain theory also is not necessarily true. Among recruits in basic training -- where smoking is disallowed, meals are controlled and exercise is a must -- there is virtually no weight gain, Talcott said.

Help is available for those who wish to quit but. Most base health and wellness centers offer smoking cessation classes, and nicotine-replacement therapies are available.

The Department of Defense is working with primary care physicians to help them spot tobacco use early and provide messages about quitting. Visit the Tricare Web site at also offers information on why kicking the habit is a good idea and how to quit.