Study: Military Smoking Rates Higher Than Public

Troops in Iraq use tobacco at almost twice the rate of the general population, according to Dr. Michael Wilson. Host Andrea Seabrook discusses the military culture of smoking with Wilson, who conducted the study while he was deployed in Iraq.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Here's a vivid image of war, the weather beaten soldier leaning exhausted against a post, taking a long drag on a cigarette. As the legendary General Black Jack Pershing put it, you ask me what we need to win the war, I answer, tobacco as much as bullets. During Pershing's time in the two world wars, smoking seemed almost innocuous. Now, of course, we know better.

Still, a doctor who served in Iraq says almost two thirds of the soldiers he studied there used tobacco. That's almost double the rate of the general population. His name is Doctor Michael Wilson. He's a pulmonary physician. He was deployed to Iraq last year for about eight months with the U.S. Navy reserve, and he did the study on his own. He presented his findings at a professional conference last week. Half of the smokers he studied said they started using tobacco after going into the military.

Dr. MICHAEL WILSON (Pulmonary Physician): A lot of it is a learned behavior. These young recruits that come in, they look up. They emulate their staff and COs, their young officers and beyond, and they see a lot of them chewing tobacco or smoking cigarettes, and they want to be like them because they're the people they look up to, and then they start using, as well.

It very much is a strong peer pressure, as well. If you're with a group of buddies, and these are the guys that, you know, the guy to the right of you, the guy to the left you, that's who you're depending upon to help save your life while you're over there in Iraq, if those people, as a group, especially if the small unit leader is using some form of tobacco product, you're much more likely to use it if you're part of that group just from sheer peer pressure.

SEABROOK: So, given all these things, how do you tell them not to smoke? What do you say?

Dr. WILSON: Well, that's a great question. And the Department of Defense has done a very good job in the last couple of years to have the Navy and the Marine Corps to realize that this is a very big problem that has gotten worse since the war on terrorism has started. And they have started to develop programs, particularly on the Internet, computer programs, different kinds of educational programs to try and convince military people between - especially between the age of 18 and 25 not to use tobacco products. But what we also need to do is try and change that culture.

SEABROOK: How do you tell the general who came up in this culture to tell his people not to smoke?

Dr. WILSON: Well, as a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, I don't tell the general anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Of course not.

Dr. WILSON: I would suggest strongly they all have in common the common desire to get back home alive and to care for these young men and women. That means more than just surviving the bullets and the bombs. That means trying to teach the kind of habits that will help them survive and do well for the rest of their lives.

In addition to that, we need to try and somehow lessen the tobacco industry's influence. They've long pushed selling tobacco products to the military. It's one of their biggest avenues of developing new customers, so to speak. It's very famous that they used to stuff Red Cross packages with cigarettes or chewing tobacco to send overseas. That's become less so, but if you look at even this current war, when they get care packages sent from home, a lot of times, these care packages have exactly that, cigarettes and tobacco.

Now, it's not fair to say the tobacco industry per say is doing that any more because they're not. But certainly, in the history of tobacco industry, they've targeted the military, and they still do so in ways, such as trying to keep the cost lower inside the exchange. It used to be a lot cheaper to buy cigarettes and chewing tobacco at an exchange than it was right outside the base.

SEABROOK: Is there more smoking now in the military than before?

Dr. WILSON: Well, we were doing a really great job over the last 20, 25 years reducing tobacco dependence in the military. When you look at my study, what's very concerning is, you could argue that the rate of tobacco abuse has gone way back up in the military.

SEABROOK: You say a lot more people will die from smoking-related disease than injuries suffered in war.

Dr. WILSON: If my survey is correct, if you take just one fourth of the people that likely use tobacco while they're in Iraq, about 250,000 will contract or develop some form of tobacco related-illness in the course of their lifetime. That's compared to roughly 4,119 U.S. troops that have been killed in Iraq up to July 15th, and approximately 30,000 casualties. The numbers pale in comparison to the number of people that are going to come back potentially with tobacco problems 20, 30 years from now. We need to attack this problem before they go, while they're there and when they get home.

I think it should be just as important as making sure we all had body armor over there, and I'm very glad that I had body armor over there. It has saved countless lives. Well, so would reducing the nicotine dependence. It would probably, in the end, save many more lives of U.S. military personnel and veterans than the body armor itself has done.

SEABROOK: Dr. Michael Wilson, thanks very much for coming in.

Dr. WILSON: Thanks for having me.

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