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Dempsey on smoking ban: Chiefs need to weigh in

Jun. 21, 2014 - 09:48AM   |  
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A forcewide review of tobacco that could result in new restrictions on the sale and use of cigarettes is drawing some skepticism from the Defense Department’s top officer.

“I’m open-minded to the review, but … the chiefs will need to have a voice on this because of the effect on the force,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers this week.

Top Pentagon officials are examining current tobacco policies to determine whether they potentially threaten military readiness. The high-level review will be completed in August and will include input from the Joint Chiefs before it’s finalized.

Talk of sweeping new restrictions on tobacco — for example, banning it from Navy ships — have come mostly from the military’s civilian leadership, including Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who is among the most vocal supporters, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who approved the controversial review in March.

Dempsey’s comments came as one lawmaker suggested the Defense Department should eliminate the tax breaks and subsidies that make cigarettes and smokeless tobacco slightly cheaper on base.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., cited research showing that smoking costs the Pentagon about $1.6 billion annually in medical costs and lost work time. He also noted that one in three troops who use tobacco started after joining the military.

“Why? Well, we make it easy,” Durbin said during a June 18 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Dempsey said he is skeptical of any plan to intentionally raise the price of tobacco on base.

“We lead an uncommon life by choice,” Dempsey said. “All the things you’re talking about are legal and they are accessible and anything that makes anything less convenient and more expensive for our men and women in uniform, given everything we’re asking them to do, I’ve got concerns about,” Dempsey said at the hearing on Wednesday.

Lawmakers may weigh in on the issue, too. The House inserted into its version of the 2015 defense authorization bill a provision that would restrict the military from taking any action to limit or ban the sale of tobacco in commissaries or exchanges on any military installation or ship at sea.

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