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Survey Results Reveal Healthier Lifestyles

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 2, 1996 – Results of a 1995 worldwide DoD survey of health behaviors show service members are using alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs at the lowest rates since the department began the survey in 1980.

The survey -- the sixth in the series of confidential, anonymous, standardized questionnaires -- ask active duty service members about various health behaviors, including use of illegal drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and at-risk sexual behavior.

DoD revised the survey last year to assess selected national health-status goals reflected in Healthy People 2000 objectives, the mental health of the force and specific health concerns of military women. The Department of Health and Human Services initiated Healthy People 2000 to increase public awareness and adoption of healthier lifestyles. DoD adopted some objectives of the initiative.

Health affairs officials selected more than 16,000 service members to complete the questionnaire.

"This report is encouraging," said Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. "Overall, the negative effects of alcohol and drug use continue to decline. Our increased emphasis on health promotion, safety and disease prevention should reflect even lower rates in the future."

Between 1980 and 1995, the survey shows a continuing decline in use of illicit drugs, alcohol and cigarettes by military personnel. In the 1980 survey, 27.6 percent of the active force acknowledged use of illicit drugs during the month prior to being questioned. In 1995, that dropped to 3 percent.

Heavy drinking declined from 20.8 percent in 1980 to 17.1 percent in 1995, while cigarette smoking declined from 51 percent to 31.9 percent during this same period.

While the overall reported rate of illicit drug use is low, the usage rate continues to be concentrated among service members who are male, younger, less educated, single and in lower pay grades. Marijuana remains the most frequently reported illicit drug used by personnel in the prior month (1.7 percent), followed by LSD/hallucinogens and analgesics (.6 percent each), amphetamines/stimulants (.5 percent) and cocaine and tranquilizers (.3 percent each).

The average daily consumption of alcohol per service member has decreased 44 percent in 15 years, from 1.48 ounces per person in 1980 to .83 ounces in 1995. This reflects the continuing increase in the percentages of people who abstain from alcohol or who are infrequent/light drinkers (from 25.6 percent in 1980 to 39.7 percent in 1995), officials said.

While this trend to less drinking is decidedly positive, heavy drinking remains a problem, officials conceded. Heavy drinking is defined as five or more drinks per occasion at least once a week.

Officials attribute the decline in heavy drinking since 1980 is to changes in the force rather than true changes in consumption rates. Today, a larger proportion of the military is in groups less likely to be heavy drinkers. Nevertheless, between 1980 and 1995, significant declines were found in the percentages of personnel experiencing alcohol-related serious consequences, productivity loss and symptoms of dependence.

Smoking also shows a continuing declining trend. From the peak rate of 51.4 percent in 1982, the rate of cigarette usage reported in the 30 days prior to completing the survey has dropped to 31.9 percent. While still above the Healthy People 2000 objective of 20 percent, this rate is down significantly from the 1992 rate of 35 percent. The rate of smokeless tobacco use during the previous 30 days was 13.2 percent. Use was inversely related to age and was highest among young men ages 18 to 24 (21.9 percent).

The survey also gathered information on Healthy People 2000 objectives pertaining to exercise, body weight, blood pressure awareness and control, cholesterol screening, seat belt and helmet use, condom use, Pap tests and substance use during pregnancy. Overall, the military met or exceeded the Healthy People 2000 goals for overweight for those age 20 and older, strenuous exercise, seat belt use, Pap smears ever received, and Pap smears received in the past three years.

Also, the active force was within 10 percentage points of reaching targets for no cigarette use during pregnancy, condom use, weight for persons under age 20, and helmet use by motorcyclists.

By examining stress, coping mechanisms, symptoms of depression and relationships between alcohol use and mental health, the survey indicates most military service members have good mental health and appropriate coping mechanisms for managing stress. The most frequently reported stressful event for men (23.7 percent) and women (21.1 percent) was family separation. The three most commonly used strategies for coping with stress were adopting a problem-solving approach, seeking social support and engaging in health-related behaviors such as exercise.

The survey also investigated several health issues that may affect the readiness of military women: stress, OB/GYN care and pregnancy.

Overall, the findings suggest military women believe they have good access to health care services. The survey did note that about 33 percent of women perceived high levels of stress associated with being a woman in the military.

"These survey results enable the department to focus health and education efforts on specific population groups, in order to enhance their health and to achieve force readiness," Joseph said.

Research Triangle Institute conducted the survey for DoD. The final report is available from the Defense Technical Information Center (800) 225-3842 and the National Technical Information Service at (703) 487-4600. Cite Publication No. PB96-129051. Previous survey reports also may be obtained from these sources.

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