Crimson Tide: Change in the Navy’s Submarine Smoking Policy

The US navy announced last week that smoking would no longer be allowed on submarines. As reported in the New York Times (link), the military has a long history with the tobacco industry and was responsible for starting a generation of smokers through the issuance of cigarettes to soldiers in their meals ready to eat (MRE) packets. The financial implications of that implicit and explicit support are coming home to roost as the government now bears responsibility for the myriad of smoking related health complications those veterans now face.

The decision to ban smoking on submarines was made because the military realized that even their best air filtration systems could not sufficiently clean the submarine air to protect non smokers from the deleterious health effects of smoking. What makes this an important story for those of us who aren’t submariners? There are several reasons:

1) Opponents of clean indoor air laws, particularly those laws requiring smoke-free workplaces for those in the food and beverage industry, have argued that filtration systems clean the air adequately enough to protect workers. If the military can’t buy or build a system to do this, we should all realize these systems don’t work. The only thing that keeps bars and restaurants and workplaces free from the harms of tobacco smoke are smoke-free workplaces

2) The military intends to keep smoking in place on other navy ships and in all other areas of service arguing that the stress of military service is sufficient that smoking should remain a tolerated coping tool. While we at CNiC would never dispute the incredibly stressful nature of military service, particularly in a time of war, research shows that smoking isn’t always an effective stress reducing approach. In fact, there is some evidence that smoking cessation reduces stress.

3) As taxpayers, we bear the health costs associated with permissive smoking policies for active duty members of the military as we commit, rightly so, to providing our veterans medical care for life. Thus, the costs of smoking-related disease over the life time are the federal government’s, and thus the taxpayers’. Policies that decrease the permissibility of smoking and build a culture around healthy choices and coping strategies benefit the nation as a whole.

The tobacco ban on submarines is a notable and very positive step in fighting the scourge of tobacco and improving the health of our soldiers and ultimately their families. Many of the young men and women entering the military become smokers only after they enlist. Furthering such tobacco bans to other settings would help keep these soldiers smoke-free while enticing others to stop smoking. We already ask our young people in uniform to risk their lives on the battlefield. Shouldn’t we do what we can to help them live long and healthy lives off the battlefield as well?

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