Air Force Considers Smoking Ban

Bill Jempty points to a Stars and Stripes discussion of a possible ban on smoking in the United States Air Force.

Air Force officials said Thursday that a widespread ban on tobacco products is possible, but not imminent.

Specialists are working on such policies and they appear to be a likely option in the not-so-distant future, according to Lt. Col. Steven Pflanz, chairman of the Air Force’s Integrated Delivery System, an arm of the service’s Community Action Information Board. The board, which meets quarterly, is designed to identify and resolve concerns from a variety of sources throughout the Air Force.

“There was general support for moving forward with a restrictive policy and evaluating carefully what that policy should be,” Pflanz said of the CAIB meeting held two weeks ago. “There is recognition that to get anywhere near our goal, we have to try something new.”

Officials say some information provided to Stars and Stripes for an April 29 article was incorrect. The Air Force Materiel Command did receive an endorsement from the CAIB for its proposals on banning tobacco products, Pflanz said. But while there was some thought expressed about making the command a test case, AFMC believes it is not ready, according to Robert Ely, an AFMC public affairs officer. Ely said much of that is due to the command’s large civilian work force. Civilians make up about 70 percent of the command, and directives that work with servicemembers don’t always apply to civilians.

Ely said the AFMC is still working on its plans and declined to discuss anything specific. “Nobody’s ready to talk about it,” he said. “It’s way too premature.”

Pflanz said plans for a widespread tobacco ban need more work and the approval of Gen. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne. But he said Lt. Gen. Arthur Lichte, who heads the CAIB, will expect to see progress on the issue at future CAIB meetings. “He’s not going to be satisfied if six months go by and not a lot has happened,” Pflanz said.

He also couldn’t rule out the possibility of some bans going into effect before the Air Force adopts a policy. “In the absence of Air Force policy, there is nothing to prevent an individual base or command from going forth,” Pflanz said. At least one commander, Col. Michael Schaffrinna of the 31st Medical Group at Aviano Air Base in Italy, already has prohibited tobacco use by airmen while in uniform.

Pflanz said the CAIB endorsed the concept because the service’s messages — and its tobacco cessation programs — aren’t convincing enough people to stop. He said that after a large decline in the 1980s and early 1990s, the percentage of tobacco users has remained at about 25 percent for the last decade.

The Air Force’s goal is to reduce that percentage to 12 percent by 2010. Pflanz said that’s a goal, not a mandate, but the service would like to see all of its airmen tobacco-free. “If you’re an airman who smokes,” he said, “the Air Force would like you to make efforts to quit smoking or quit using tobacco.”

Like Jempty, I’m generally leery of government efforts to ban dangerous behavior that adults find pleasurable. The military is, however, a different animal. It’s also a sign of what can happen when a government bureaucracy is put in charge of people’s lives.

The Air Force could reasonably argue that its airmen would perform better if they weren’t smokers. While physical fitness is never something that particular Service has been known for, outside a handful of occupational specialties, smoking tends to decrease athletic performance. In an office environment, smokers waste a lot of time taking breaks to indulge their habit or, if prohibited from doing that, suffer withdrawal symptoms. (There are, however, counter arguments to be made that nicotine provides a pick-me-up. Certainly, smokeless tobacco use is prolific among infantry soldiers because it helps them stay alert during night patrols.)

More significantly, military personnel are eligible for a pension and medical benefits after twenty years of service. Given that long-term smokers tend to have more health problems, the government can argue that disallowing smoking is financially prudent.

The Army is unlikely to implement such a policy, given that we’re at war and the Army is having a difficult time attracting enough recruits into key specialties. The Air Force, however, is not faced with such concerns.

The military is a closed society and can get away with things that most employers can not. As the government becomes more responsible for providing health care services and disability benefits, though, I expect we’ll see more moves in this direction in society at large. We’ve already seen this used, for example, to justify mandatory helmet and seatbelt laws. A ban on smoking may not be that far down the road. Then, on to bacon.

FILED UNDER: Health, Military Affairs, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Unsurprising, and a long time coming. When I was stationed in Germany just a few years ago, they (don’t recall if it was an AF-wide thing or just the local command) barred people from walking down the street & smoking while in uniform – you had to be standing in one of the mildly-secluded smoking areas. In fact, ‘way back in the early 90s I recall seeing some old promo flier stating that no Wing Commander (an O-6/O-7 position) in the AF smoked. Implying, of course, that you shouldn’t if you want to Go Far…

    Also, and I only know what I can see from my desk, my impression is that the vast majority of smokers today _are_ the civilians; especially those that retired off active duty & moved into civil service. And as noted, that throws an extra curve ball at the legal issues…

  2. The military is a closed society and can get away with things that most employers can not. As the government becomes more responsible for providing health care services and disability benefits, though, I expect we’ll see more moves in this direction in society at large.

    Employers getting deeply involved in employees health is already happening. I recently heard a local CEO talk about how his company controlled health care costs. One way was with the use of health savings accounts. Another way was finding out what ailments and medical conditions his employees had and making sure they took care of themselves. Those with diabetes were reminded to eat right, exercise, see the doctor, and take their medication. From what I gathered the employees voluntarily offered the information. Still, I would be uncomfortable working in a place that was that paternalistic. We’ll see more of this as employers figure out that it controls costs. Policy-wise we need to find ways to get employers out of providing health insurance to keep them from becoming our parents.

  3. Tim Worstall says:

    “More significantly, military personnel are eligible for a pension and medical benefits after twenty years of service. Given that long-term smokers tend to have more health problems, the government can argue that disallowing smoking is financially prudent.”

    They can try to argue that but they would be wrong of course. The go to guy on this is Kip Viscusi at Harvard.
    Yes, smokers do incur health costs. So do non-smokers. One of the things about life is that no one gets out alive and we all incur health care costs on our way.

    However, smokers die, on average, seven years earlier than non-. If the same group (in this case, the Feds) are paying both the health care costs and the pensions, smokers quite clearly save the system money.

  4. Dale Cox says:

    More significantly, military personnel are eligible for a pension and medical benefits after twenty years of service. Given that long-term smokers tend to have more health problems, the government can argue that disallowing smoking is financially prudent.

    On the other hand – I say this as an active duty Marine Master Sergeant and a smoker – I may save the government (tax payers) a lot of money by not having to pay my pension if I die in my 60’s as opposed to dying in my 80’s (about $24,000 a year). Not to mention the income for doctors, nurses and the like that I’ll will possibly generate. In the end it is probably a wash.

    We are also talking about a group of people that is generally aged 18 – 38 (enlisted) who with a proper exercise plan – and all of the services have an exercise plan to greater or lesser degree – will stay in good shape regardless of their smoking habits. I’m 37, have smoked for too long and can still run 3 miles in about 24 or 25 minutes. I realize that is not worldclass speed but it is well above the minimum standard of 30 minutes.

    The military in general and the Marine Corps in particular inserts itself in the lives of its members enough already. Pardon the pun but on this issue the military needs to butt out.

  5. Dale says:

    If the Air Force wants their people to be healthier, they should implement a better PT program and in a lot of their units, I suspect they need to actually start a PT program.

  6. legion says:

    Dale,
    We do actually have one… it’s even starting to become effective now that we’ve finally ditched that ridiculous bicycle test that was substituted for the run for a few years. There’s even an ongoing debate about including PT results on performance reports the way the Army does. No disrespect to the Corps, but there are reasons I joined the AF instead – not getting up at o-dark-thirty to go sweat was a big one 🙂

  7. Wayne says:

    The major problem I have with helmets, seat belt and now many smoking laws come down to one word “Freedom”. This “it save money and improves health” argument is B.S. That argument can be used to take away almost all of our freedoms.

    Military has special considerations and allowances but they can go too far as well. This is one of those cases.

    I’m a non-smoker and hate being around smokers but I’m very tire of government thinking they need to get into every little aspects of people lives.

  8. just me says:

    I think this is too much feel good.

    While I can see reasons to prohibit drugs and alcohol abuse for military personnel for safety and security reasons, I am not convinced a smoking ban serves any real purpose.

    Sure there is the health consideration, but I don’t know that this consideration is enough to convince me this isn’t being overly invasive.

    I do think the military is a different world, with different rules, and they can probably do this, but I am not convinced that it is well reasoned.