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Negative Effects of Smoking Not Deterring Servicemembers

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 16, 2005 – The lung cancer death of broadcasting legend Peter Jennings, an admitted long-time smoker, has again brought smoking and its dangers to the forefront of public consciousness.

While an estimated 25 percent of Americans smoke, the military's numbers hover at 34 percent, according to Col. Gerald Wayne Talcott with the Air Force Medical Support Agency, in Falls Church, Va. That's an increase of 4 percent for the military since 2002.

"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 added.

Servicemembers who smoke often claim it's 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 explained.

Smokers may see their habit as a personal risk, but 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 that 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 don't necessarily feel the immediate ramifications. But, if a smoker quits, as more than 50 percent of Defense Department personnel who smoke have expressed a desire to do, there are benefits to be reaped.

"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 the almost the same as it would be for a nonsmoker."

Servicemembers 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's 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.

Nor is the weight-gain theory 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 think they need help. DoD offers smoking cessation classes in nearly all medical treatment facilities, and nicotine-replacement therapies are available.

DoD also is working with primary care physicians to help them spot tobacco use early and provide messages about quitting. The Tricare Web site, www.tricare.osd.mil, also offers information on why kicking the habit is a good idea and how to quit.

The military also is working to make smoking less attractive by hitting servicemembers who smoke in the wallet. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service is restricted to discounting tobacco products no more than 5 percent below what they would cost outside a military installation. This is a change from deeper discounts that were once offered, officials said.

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Related Sites:
Tricare, Healthy Choices For Life

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