Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include citations for data.
In 1906, Teddy Roosevelt mandated the Army’s first physical fitness test. Since then, the Army has revisited its physical readiness programs repeatedly, seeking to find a cure for poor fitness and obesity. Today’s Health and Holistic Fitness program is the latest incarnation in this long line of efforts, and unfortunately, it will fail like each effort before it.
It will not fail because the science is wrong, or because the equipment and training are lacking, or because leaders are not earnestly committed to it. It will fail because it applies a downstream solution to an upstream problem.
Just as we can’t expect to clean up a river by collecting trash at its mouth while a factory continues to dump sludge into it, we can’t expect to create a fit force while the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) continues to pollute our Soldiers’ bodies.
It is time to align AAFES’s mission with the Army’s mission and put readiness over profits.
Today’s active-duty force abuses alcohol 20% more than the general population, according to a Rand Corp. study, and smokes 50% more, according to a 2011 study. It also has a 17% obesity rate, according to information from the Army, despite access to nutritionists, gyms, and wellness centers. What about the Army lifestyle explains how America’s healthiest 1% can join the Army only to become so unhealthy? What explains the 0 to 17% transformation in obesity from recruit to soldier?
A large part of the answer can be found in your nearest shoppette. Last year AAFES stores posted sales exceeding $5 billion, largely by enabling our addictions to dip, Doritos, and drinking. On every base, AAFES offers tobacco at state minimum prices, deals on candy bars, and alcohol without tax. Soldiers can either embrace these cheap, unhealthy options or take a 30-minute trip off-post to find healthy options that cost a premium. The results are obvious. For a force pressed on time and money, 2-for-1 Monster energy drinks, discounted hot dogs, and chewing tobacco are the regular lunch plan.
Obviously, AAFES is not solely responsible for the Army’s chronic struggles with health and fitness, but it is a variable we can control. It may be hard to fault 7-Eleven for selling junk food to make money, but AAFES is not a for-profit company. It is as much a part of the Department of Defense as the Army is and its corporate board sits in the Pentagon. We can hold AAFES to a higher standard. Without competition or shareholders, AAFES does not need to prioritize profit. Instead, it can prioritize readiness.
In 2021, AAFES contributed $205 million to Quality-of-Life programs that promote “military readiness,” according to its annual report. It seems like a staggering amount, and as AAFES points out, this money does not come from tax dollars, but at the same time, it is not without a cost. Each year, the Defense Department works to repair the damage done by AAFES products, spending more than $3 billion in tax dollars to cover medical and nonmedical costs associated with tobacco use, obesity, and high alcohol. Nonmedical costs include the costs associated with absenteeism, non-deployable personnel, alcohol-related arrests, and training replacements. By banning tobacco, junk food, and alcohol from AAFES stores or making them more expensive, the defense department can save billions and increase readiness.
Put simply, if the Army needs to choose between an AAFES-funded dental clinic or less mouth cancer, it should choose less cancer.
When CVS banned tobacco products from its stores in 2014, its customers did not go elsewhere to buy tobacco. Convenience proved to be a key part of their habit. As a result of the ban, nearly two out of five smokers who bought cigarettes at CVS quit rather than travel to another store to buy tobacco. An AAFES-wide ban could equate to nearly 160,000 soldiers quitting and the Army saving nearly $2 billion in lifetime medical costs alone. Even a more modest 5% price increase and tighter clean air policies could result in 80,000 Soldiers quitting.
Beyond tobacco, reducing energy drinks, junk food, and alcohol in our soldiers’ diets will improve sleep, fitness, and overall well-being. In major cities, an increase in soda prices of just $.01 per ounce has reduced consumption by 22%. Through price adjustments, AAFES can help us choose the healthy options in their stores.
Some will argue that banning these products in AAFES is akin to punishing soldiers who already work long hours in tough conditions. Smoking and drinking are woven into Army culture going back generations and any veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan understands what a cold Rip It can mean—but removing them from the PX does not mean removing them from our culture. It means moderation. Just as the Army adapted to indoor smoking bans, it can adapt to a new shoppette, one that subsidizes healthy options and emphasizes well-being.
Redesigning AAFES to value wellness over profit might cut into its bottom line. It might anger some and it might delay the renovation of a bowling alley. But it certainly will improve the Army’s readiness.
Major Nolan Johnson is an active-duty Civil Affairs Officer with deployments to Afghanistan, Indonesia, and South Korea. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. He previously worked as his brigade’s lead project officer for the implementation of Health and Holistic Fitness. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any organization.