Proposed legislation would prevent DoD from banning tobacco sales. (Defense Department)
House lawmakers moved Wednesday to protect tobacco sales on military bases and ships, prohibiting Navy plans to drop the problematic products in the name of force health.
As part of its annual defense authorization bill mark up on Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee added language forbidding defense officials from enacting “any new policy that would limit, restrict, or ban the sale of any legal consumer product category” on military installations.
Amendment sponsor Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said the measure was in direct response to reports that the Navy is working to eliminate tobacco sales at exchanges and on ships. Commissaries on Navy bases currently do not sell tobacco products.
The move would be the most dramatic so far among military officials trying to keep servicemembers from picking up or continuing the habit. In 2012, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus labeled tobacco as “the most avoidable public health hazard in the Navy and Marine Corps.”
The push had been a priority for Mabus, who said it would promote health — and ultimately readiness.
“We demand that sailors and Marines be incredibly fit, and we know that tobacco hurts that fitness,” Mabus said in a March 27 interview with Navy Times. “We know that the cost for health care far exceeds any profit that we could possibly make selling that. We know that it brings bad health-care results and fitness results.”
But Hunter and members of the House panel argued that the anti-smoking efforts amount to unneeded hand-holding of troops who are responsible adults and can make their own life choices.
“Just because you joined the service doesn’t mean you can’t live comfortably,” said Hunter, a Marine Corps veteran. “If your goal is to make the military healthy, let’s outlaw war. That’s as unhealthy as you can get.”
The measure passed by a 53-9 vote, with a handful of Democrats objecting to restrictions on military leaders’ efforts to promote force health and safety. The measure would cover any product legal nationwide as of Jan. 1, including alcohol and sugary drinks, although no effort has been made of late to limit sales of those products.
It would not cover marijuana, which is legal for sale in several states but not on federal installations.
The Senate would have to adopt the House’s regulation ban before it could become law. Leaders from the Senate Armed Services Committee are expected to offer their draft of the annual authorization bill later this month.