America has the finest military in the world. Our soldiers are highly trained, physically fit and 100 percent committed to their country and their mission. They spend months and years preparing for whatever they are called upon to do. Their health and readiness is paramount to their success.
Tobacco is not their ally.
Tobacco use hurts readiness. It degrades our military’s ability as a fighting force and causes significant health problems for military members. Tobacco use negatively affects mental activity, lung capacity, fine motor coordination, night vision, stamina and the ability to manage stress. Tobacco use can compromise the mission and put soldiers’ lives at risk.
The long-term consequences of tobacco addiction are equally serious. Tobacco use leads to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and numerous other health problems. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that 175,000 active-duty servicemembers will die from smoking unless they quit. Not surprisingly, tobacco use also comes with a significant economic cost; the Department of Defense spends more than $1.6 billion each year on tobacco-related medical care, increased hospitalizations and lost days of work.
Maine lawmakers have an opportunity to support the brave men and women who serve our country, especially those at the beginning of their careers, by raising to 21 the age at which tobacco products can be purchased. The logic of this tactic is simple: Nearly all smokers (95 percent) start before age 21, and ages 18 to 21 are a critical period when many smokers move from experimental smoking to daily use and addiction. Addiction means brain changes that can keep smokers smoking, even after multiple attempts to quit and can increase susceptibility to other addictive substances.
Every young adult, including our men and women in service, deserves the opportunity to live a healthy and productive life, free from tobacco addiction and its many detriments.
Passing this common-sense policy in Maine will reinforce the efforts of the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce tobacco initiation and encourage cessation in military and veteran populations. Soldiers are now prohibited from using tobacco products during basic training because the servicemembers who use tobacco are more likely to drop out of basic training, sustain injuries and have poor vision — all of which compromise troop readiness.
Tobacco use is not a rite of passage or a sign of adulthood; it is a deadly addiction that puts our young people at risk, including the young people who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom.
The tobacco industry has a long history of promoting tobacco use among members of the military. Thankfully, we are a long way from the days of World War II, when tobacco companies provided free cigarettes to the troops. This culture of smoking has been difficult to reverse, and 70 years later, tobacco use rates among service members are higher than for the civilian population. Nearly a quarter of military personnel smoke cigarettes, compared with 19 percent of the civilian population, while four times as many use a smokeless product, according to a 2011 Department of Defense survey.
Two years ago, the state of Hawaii, home to the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, increased the age to purchase and use tobacco products to 21. Rear Adm. John Fuller, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, told his troops, “Quitting tobacco is one of the best things we can do to improve fitness and readiness. … If someone is young enough to fight for their country, they should be free from addiction to a deadly drug. Tobacco harms people’s physical well-being, leads to illness and costs them money.”
We owe much to the young people who choose to serve in our military, but we certainly do not owe them an early addiction to a deadly product. Their physical fitness and health should be a top priority in policymaking decisions. For these reasons, I urge Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature to increase the age of tobacco purchase in Maine to 21. Our soldiers deserve a fighting chance to avoid a lifetime of addiction and diminished health. And our military needs every soldier to be ready for the mission and at their best.
Maj. Gen. Nelson E. Durgin, U.S. Air Force (retired), is the former adjutant general and commissioner of the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans, and Emergency Management.