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Senate panel proposes ending tobacco discounts

Jul. 15, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Smokers could lose their discount on tobacco products sold at military exchanges under a provision unveiled in the Senate.
Smokers could lose their discount on tobacco products sold at military exchanges under a provision unveiled in the Senate. (Rachel Larue / Army)
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Smokers could lose their discount on tobacco products sold at military exchanges under a provision unveiled in the Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee chairman Rep. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel, called the move a common-sense decision to give troops less incentive to use tobacco.

“There’s no reason that deadly tobacco products should be subsidized,” Durbin said, arguing that lower prices on the products lead to higher use, which in turn “leads to addiction, health problems, and in some cases death.”

The budget bill provision would dump the tobacco discount and force military exchanges to sell the items at full price.

DoD policy calls for limiting discounts on tobacco products sold in both military exchanges and commissaries to no more than 5 percent below “the most competitive commercial price in the local community.” That effectively means the military discount can be much larger when compared to “average” off-base prices.

The Navy ended discounts on tobacco products sold on Navy and Marine Corps bases in 2012. But Durbin said tobacco discounts at some installations in the other services run as high as 20 percent below local civilian stores. A 2013 National Institutes of Health study found military discounts of as high as 73 percent in some locations.

Critics say that’s one reason why troops smoke and use chewing tobacco at dramatically higher rates than civilians. About 25 percent of troops smoke cigarettes, compared to about 20 percent of civilians, and about 13 percent use smokeless tobacco products, compared to 3 percent of civilians.

Military officials have launched a number of anti-tobacco initiatives in recent years, citing the long-term health costs to frequent users. Durbin cited DoD estimates that say tobacco-related illnesses drain $1.6 billion annually from military health care accounts.

Earlier this year, an analysis from the Kansas-based Institute for Biobehavioral Health Research found that the discounted tobacco products at military bases send a contradictory message to troops and undermine those anti-smoking programs.

Navy officials have discussed dropping all tobacco product sales from service exchanges, commissaries and ship stores. That move prompted pushback from several House lawmakers, who argued that all service members should have access to the products if they’re legal and available to civilians.

Those same House lawmakers would have to sign off on dropping the tobacco discount before the change could become law. The appropriations bill is expected to move through the Senate this month, but likely won’t be finalized until late 2014.

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