Pentagon considering banning cigarette sales on ships and bases

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If you’re a member of the military, easy access to cigarettes could soon go up in smoke.

The Department of Defense is considering banning the sale of cigarettes on ships and bases in an effort to get service members to stop smoking.

The Pentagon says no final decision has been made about banning sales to the troops, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, himself a Vietnam vet, explained why he has asked for a review.

"The costs, health care costs, are astounding.  Well over a billion dollars, just in the Department of Defense, on tobacco-related illness and health care,” Hagel explained Monday during a Pentagon press conference before leaving for a 10-day trip to Hawaii and Asia.

“Now, the dollars are one thing, but the health of your -- of your people, I don't know if you put a price tag on that. So I think it does need to be looked at and reviewed.”

A March 14 Defense Department memo issues guidance to all the service chiefs:

"Although we stopped distributing cigarettes to our Service members as part of their rations, we continue to permit, if not encourage, tobacco use. The prominence of tobacco products in retail outlets and permission for smoking breaks while on duty sustain the perception that we are not serious about reducing the use of tobacco."

The memo was signed by Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

Already, there is push back from Capitol Hill. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, said it is politics, not the health of the force, that is driving the DoD consideration.

“I think because they want to turn the Marine Corps into a Job Corps or the Peace Corps basically,” Hunter told Fox News. “I kind of see this you know, for lack of a better term, the unmanning of the US military.”

Hunter argued some of the traits that are unhealthy in society at large are the traits of a good warrior. He wrote a letter to U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has taken the lead in pushing the idea of banning tobacco sales on ships.

“Having spent time around Marines and sailors through multiple deployments, I believe there are far more immediate priorities for the Navy and the Marine Corps, all of which require your leadership and attention,” Hunter wrote to Mabus on March 28. “I want to express my strong opposition to this idea.”

In an interview with Military Times, Mabus said it was a matter of protecting the health of the force.

"We demand that sailors and Marines be incredibly fit," Mabus said. "We know tobacco hurts that fitness. We know the cost of health care far exceeds any profits we could possibly make selling that."

Pentagon spokesman Lt Col Cathy Wilkinson added in a statement, "Tobacco use costs the DoD an estimated $1 .6 billion annually in medical costs and lost work time. We estimate 175,000 current active duty service members will die from smoking unless we can help them quit."