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Less Smoking Improves Troops' Health, Cuts Healthcare Costs

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 6, 2000 – Tobacco use in DoD has dropped significantly in the last two decades, generally mirroring civilian rates. But 30 percent of the active duty force still smokes.

"Since 1995 there hasn't been much change in that percentage," said Lt. Col. Wayne Talcott, an Air Force psychologist who is co-chairman of the DoD Alcohol Abuse and Tobacco Use Reduction Committee. "We'd like to see a continued downward trend." He said DoD hopes to meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Healthy People 2010 goal of a 12 percent smoker rate.

DoD spends $930 million per year on healthcare for smoking- related illnesses and lost productivity in DoD beneficiaries, Talcott said. A recent study of just active duty Air Force members below age 36 shows that service spends $107 million a year to treat smokers and for lost time due to smoke breaks. The study assumed "a conservative estimate" of three 10-minute smoke breaks a day.

"If you look at that in man-hour equivalents, that's how much it would cost to employ 3,537 people for a year, about the number on an average-sized Air Force base," Talcott said.

All four services prohibit smoking throughout basic training, and Talcott believes that makes it an ideal time to quit for good.

"There are certain times people are more willing to make changes. For instance, women are more likely to quit smoking when they become pregnant," he said. "We believed basic training is another one of those times -- people have already said they'd wear different clothes, march in a line and do things they've never done before." They are much more open to change.

To test this theory, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., granted the University of Memphis $3 million in the mid-1990s to survey the smoking habits of all 35,000 Air Force recruits in a year. All the trainees received a one-hour class on the benefits of not smoking. A year after basic, researchers polled 95 percent of the pretraining smokers and 65 percent of the pretraining nonsmokers. Findings were mixed.

Officials learned that 17.7 percent of the smokers had quit for good. Unfortunately, Talcott said, 11 percent of the nonsmokers picked up the habit. "So we still have some work to do," he said.

Talcott also said the committee, which is less than a year old, plans to take steps through both policy and programs to attempt to decrease the number of smokers in the DoD.

Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of premature death in the United States, he said. "That makes it a worthy thing for us to study."

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