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Smokeout Focuses Attention on Serious Problem

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2004 – One of the Defense Department's top doctors said he applauds any servicemember planning to use the American Cancer Society's 28th Great American Smokeout as their springboard to quit smoking.

The Great American Smokeout, which falls on Nov. 18 this year, is the one day a year to really focus on a very serious problem facing servicemembers, said Dr. David N. Tornberg, deputy assistant secretary of defense for clinical and program policy, in a Nov. 16 Pentagon Channel interview here.

"The health and well-being of our troops are of paramount importance to us," he said. "The Great American Smokeout gives that one special day where one significant health risk can be addressed and we can coordinate our activities with the nation at large."

While there are many reasons for the military to want servicemembers who smoke to kick the habit, the most important could be the impact smoking has on readiness.

Tornberg said that on a personal level, smoking reduces an individual's aerobic capacity and consequently, strength, stamina and life expectancy. Smokers also have a higher rate of injury and associated illnesses. That lost time on the job lowers readiness on a departmental level.

An Air Force study revealed some staggering statistics about smoking-related time loss.

"The aggregate time lost due to smoking amongst our personnel is equal to the lost productivity of one Air Force base, one Marine regiment, one Army brigade, one aircraft carrier for the Navy," Tornberg said. "So in the aggregate, the time lost and the impact on readiness is significant."

Reduced strength and stamina and more time off work are well-known side effects of smoking and can reduce overall readiness. Also, he said, smokers in an operational setting have a 20 percent reduction in night vision in comparison to non-smokers.

Add in a possible forced withdrawal from tobacco because of operational requirements, and the consequences can be significant. Diminished attention and increased irritability combined with the other issues associated with smoking can directly affect the safety and fighting effectiveness of the smoker's unit.

Despite the fact that smoking reduces readiness, both personal and overall, and could endanger others in a smoker's unit, there has been an "uptick" in smoking in the military between 2000 and 2004, Tornberg said.

From a high of 54 percent of the military smoking in 1980, to a low of 29 percent in 1998, current tobacco use levels are reportedly around 34 percent of all servicemembers. The percentage of smokers in the civilian community is around 32 percent, Tornberg said.

What has caused this and why are there reports of an increase in tobacco use on the battlefield? Tornberg said the answer is simple: many regard smoking as a stress reliever.

There is also the social phenomenon, he said. Smokers gather and take the opportunity to relax. In a stressful situation, smoking rates often start to rise, he said. And because smokers often rationalize their habit, getting them to do an about- face is not always easy. However, that doesn't mean that the military isn't going to try.

Tornberg said the military provides mental health workers, social workers and chaplains at the unit level for those servicemembers who want to talk to someone about stressful situations. Other elements these practitioners can employ to reduce stress include prayer and meditation. The military also makes smoking-cessation programs available to all servicemembers and their families, he said. There are many facets to the programs but counseling and medication have proven to be very effective.

In fact, Tornberg said, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study has shown that with counseling and medication, a successful quit rate of 30 percent to 50 percent can be expected. These figures are reflective of the general population, not the military alone.

"It is a truly challenging problem when you have an ingrained habit pattern in society," he said.

In the end, he said, it is simply easier not to start smoking than to try and quit. However, society doesn't always make it easy not to pick up the habit. "I think it's important to understand and not be susceptible to the impact of advertising," Tornberg said. "The suggestion that smokers are tougher, stronger, faster is a sad illusion.

"Quite the contrary," he added. "The tough and the strong have rejected cigarettes and tobacco products."

Contact Author

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Clinical and Program Policy Dr. David N. Tornberg

Related Sites:
Military Health System
American Cancer Society

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