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The Navy is pushing ahead toward eliminating tobacco sales on all its bases and ships, as well as all Marine Corps facilities, according to sources inside and outside the Pentagon.
Officials are reportedly considering removing tobacco from all sales venues, to include any exchange-operated retail outlets, as well as MWR-operated retail outlets where cigarettes may be sold. Six commissaries on Navy bases currently sell tobacco products.
Changes may be coming to the other services, too. A Defense Department memo dated March 14 that was obtained by Military Times encourages the services to eliminate tobacco sales — and even tobacco use — on military bases, although it stops short of ordering specific actions.
“Structural reforms in how and where we allow tobacco purchases to be made, as well as the need to consider tobacco-free installations, are all matters that require our near-term attention,” stated the memo, signed by Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
DoD spokeswoman Army Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson said the department “is in the initial stages of reviewing its tobacco policies” and emphasized that “no decisions on any possible or potential changes have been made.”
However, in a Thursday interview with Military Times, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said he and his senior staff are taking a “deliberate approach” in considering a “whole range” of initiatives regarding tobacco, although he did not offer specifics.
“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.”
The effort is part of a broader campaign to increase resiliency, he said. “We’re taking steps to up the fitness across the board and looking at what those next steps will be.”
The Navy’s plan is already drawing opposition from at least one lawmaker on Capitol Hill.
“While I recognize the Navy believes removing tobacco products would help in ‘maximizing the readiness’ of sailors and Marines, it’s my belief that the Navy should worry less about intruding on the personal decision-making of these same sailors and Marines, while creating added burdens in the process,” Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine Corps veteran who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote in a letter to Mabus Friday.
Banning on-base sales of tobacco “limit — and in some cases restrict — access to legal products that service men and women choose to purchase on their own,” Hunter wrote. “Overall, removing tobacco sales is perceived more as a political decision, intended to make a point, than it is a decision that supports our sailors and Marines — regardless of personal feelings on the individual and legal use of tobacco products.
“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 told Mabus.
Navy officials have been gathering information on the impacts of such a decision, one source said, to include the inevitable drop in profits for the Navy Exchange Service Command — which would reduce the flow of dividends that help fund morale, welfare and recreation programs on installations.
Tobacco use costs DoD about $1.6 billion a year in medical costs and lost work time, according to the DoD memo signed by Wright and Woodson. Based on statistics that half of smokers will die from a related complication, that equates to about 175,000 current active-duty smokers, the officials wrote.
“Although we stopped distributing cigarettes to our service members as part of their rations, we continue to permit, if not encourage, tobacco use,” the memo states. “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.”
Wright and Woodson noted that individual military communities have taken action to curtail tobacco use, “but we must develop more aggressive, organization-wide reforms. ... We appreciate your active engagement and leadership on this issue and look forward to hearing about your successes and best practices.”
Army officials continue to review the tobacco policy in the wake of the DoD memo, said spokesman Paul Prince, “but there is currently no official policy change at this time.”
Lt. Col. David Nevers, a spokesman for Gen. Jim Amos, Marine Corps commandant, said officials are aware DoD has initiated a review. As Mabus is “carefully considering” his approach, Nevers said, “he will have the benefit of the commandant’s best military advice.”
Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Toni Whaley said she is not aware of any Air Force policy changes at this time.
Tobacco sales on military bases have steadily declined since defense officials began taking steps to reduce smoking in the ranks about 20 years ago. In the last year alone, sales in Navy exchanges dropped by 12 percent. Tobacco sales accounted for 4.5 percent of Navy exchange sales in 2013, said Navy Exchange Service Command spokeswoman Kathleen Martin.
Tobacco sales in Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores decreased by 24 percent over the last five years. In 2013, those sales accounted for 6 percent of total AAFES sales, spokesman Judd Anstey said.
Tobacco is sold in commissaries on all Army and Air Force installations, six Navy bases and four Marine bases. Since 1996, the Defense Commissary Agency has bought all its tobacco products from the military exchange services, and prices are marked up to the same level as in the local exchange.
Profits go to the exchanges, but the commissary agency keeps the 5 percent surcharge that customers pay on all products.
Part of the profits from exchange sales are contributed to the services’ morale, welfare and recreation programs, which means halting sales of tobacco would affect funding for MWR activities.
The Navy has been proactive in promoting smoking cessation and discouraging tobacco sales. Navy officials initially eliminated the sale of tobacco in most of its commissaries, then eliminated discount prices on tobacco in Navy and Marine Corps exchanges in 2012.
“Tobacco use is the most avoidable public health hazard in the Navy and Marine Corps,” Mabus wrote in a March, 2, 2012, memo announcing the end of the price discounts on tobacco in exchange stores.
In the same memo, Mabus said that nicotine replacement therapy products approved by the Food and Drug Administration would be supplied for free to service members aboard all ships, base clinics and pharmacies and battaltion aid stations.
According to that 2012 memo, about one-third of sailors and Marines used some form of tobacco.
Staff writer Sam Fellman contributed to this story.