Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Smoking Making A Comeback In The Marine Corps

Smoking kills. When necessary, so do Marines. Ideally, the two shouldn’t mix. Marines must maintain peak physical fitness for the rigors of combat — not to mention the Corps’ new Combat Fitness Test. Yet the most recent Marine Corps Quality of Life survey, conducted in 2007 and released this past summer, found that nearly 32 percent of leathernecks smoke. That’s down slightly from the 2002 survey, but the figure is noticeably higher than the national average, estimated by the American Cancer Society to be about 21 percent, and a bit higher than the percentage of 18- to 24-year-old civilians who ignore the surgeon general’s ubiquitous warnings. Another 21 percent of Marines — the highest number in the military, according to 2005 Defense Department statistics — use smokeless tobacco. And while cigarette sales at base exchanges are down this year, smokeless tobacco tins are flying off the shelves with double-digit increases over a year ago, according to Marine Corps Community Services. It’s not the news Marine officials like to hear, but it comes as no real shock either. Throughout the military, smoking is making an unwelcome comeback, reversing a nearly 20-year decline and running counter to civilian trends. Today, the Defense Department spends about $875 million on tobacco-related health care costs. To fight back, the Corps is relying on its existing efforts to stamp out tobacco use, which include an aggressive marketing campaign and tobacco cessation classes — the tried-and-true approach, officials say.As part of its smoking-cessation program, the Corps allows Marines time away from official duties to learn what to eat, what to avoid and what prescription drugs can help them kick the habit. Fresh fruit and dairy help, coffee and beer hurt, and medications such as Chantix and Zyban can boost the will to quit. In mid-November, Master Gunnery Sgt. Steven Rowe, 43, found himself alongside 13 other tobacco users at a three-hour class at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. He didn’t start smoking until he was 32, but he is determined give it up. “I’m quitting. I’m done,” Rowe said. “I marked my calendar, and when I mark my calendar I’m pretty good at it. I’ll be very upset if I don’t quit.” The class started with nurse Patricia B. Padgett asking participants if they had tried to quit before and why they wanted to quit now. Nearly everyone had tried and failed to go cold turkey, while better health, saving money and setting a good example for children topped the reasons for wanting to stop. Padgett, a former smoker who inherited the habit from her father, offers those ready to quit a selection of prescription drugs — along with an explanation of their potential side effects — that increase their odds of success. She helps about 30 people a month. At Camp Pendleton, Calif., Capt. Margaret Ryan works with about 100 people a month.Many in the class said someone they cared about was pushing them to give up the habit. Sgt. Doug Hovest, 27, who smokes a pack of Marlboros a day, said his girlfriend and his 3-year-old daughter want him smoke-free. Lance Cpl. Joshua Johnson, 22, who has been dipping since he was 10 and smoking since 17, said his grandparents are on his case. “My grandfather quit after 20 years,” Johnson said. “I think I can, too.” Such determination is an encouraging sign, but the Corps — the military as a whole, really — still has an uphill climb. Compared with 1980, when more than half of all service members smoked, today’s numbers for the Corps might not seem so bad. But officials are still worried about the drain tobacco use has on combat readiness. Col. Brian McGuire, a physical readiness program officer instrumental in developing the CFT, said tobacco use not only decreases oxygen flow to a person’s lungs, it increases the likelihood of accidents and diminishes the rate at which injuries heal. “It’s certainly contrary to the idea of Marines as warrior athletes,” he said. But it’s the heavy deployment rotations that may be the military’s worst enemy in the fight to stamp out tobacco use. A Navy doctor embedded with Marines in Iraq found that almost two-thirds of the more than 400 troops he surveyed in the war zone used some kind of tobacco — with about 72 percent of the smokers saying that just being in theater led them to smoke more. Cpl. Matt Doran, one of two Marines behind Revved Up Energy Dip, a hybrid of traditional smokeless tobacco fused with energy additives, said dipping is one of the few pleasures Marines have in a combat zone.
Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller
“It’s like a small retreat,” he said. “It’s one of the few things they get to enjoy in their down time. They are not getting home-cooked meals or the quality of life they get here in the States.” Then there’s the romantic image of cigarettes in war. World War II and Vietnam vets talk about the era of cigarettes packed into rations while tobacco companies provided pinup girl posters. Despite contemporary views that smoking is inconsistent with military readiness, the image of a battle-hardened grunt smoking after combat is difficult to shake: A Los Angeles Times photo of an exhausted Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller smoking after a 2004 battle in Fallujah became the war’s iconic image, and Miller was branded the “Marlboro Marine.” Still, some argue the low cost of tobacco on military installations impedes efforts to quit. In fact, one of the Marines at the Quantico cessation class said cheap cigarettes on base makes it easier to justify smoking. A pack of Camel Lights, for example, costs $3.45 at the base exchange aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C. A Circle K convenience store outside the gate in Jacksonville charges $4.05. McGuire, for one, is frustrated by the relationship between MCCS and smokers. He contends much of the success of the Corps’ health promotion programs is offset by the availability and prominence of tobacco in the base exchanges. “The irony,” he said, “is that the beautiful fitness centers and health promotion programs we have are funded partially by tobacco sales in the exchanges.”

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