The armed forces and cigarettes have a long history, going back to World War II. That's when Ancel Keys, a scientist who spent his career studying the relationship between diet and disease, helped the military develop an adequate meal suitable for combat. Named K-rations, after Keys, the meal considered sound at the time contained bacon, canned cheese and dextrose tablets. For relaxation, the military threw in gum and cigarettes, triggering massive nicotine addiction in young GIs.
The post-war tragedy unfolded over decades as smoking by WWII veterans led to a nine-fold increase in lung cancer deaths by 1980.
Cigarettes are no longer freebies in field K-rations, but the nicotine addiction rate in the military is still sky high, according to a news release put out by the University of Wisconsin's Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention.
"Soldiers are going to war zones in Iraq," says Dr. Michael Fiore, head of the center, "and, God willing, they survive the imminent risks of that deployment. But they often return addicted to tobacco -- a powerful addiction that puts them at risk for collateral damage for the rest of their lives."
By about the mid-1970s, military officials realized that smoking did more than relax soldiers. Soldiers who smoked didn't perfom as well on tests of athletic fitness, they got hurt more often, and they were more likely to fail basic training. Cigarettes were removed from K-rations, smoking was banned indoors and the services began offering smoking-cessation programs. Smoking rates dropped for awhile, but began rising again with the Iraq war.
"Young soldiers are especially vulnerable to the risks of tobacco," says Fiore. "Smoking is still normative in the military."
In civilian life, fewer than 20% of Americans smoke. Overall in the military, abut 33% of soldiers smoke, and about half of the men and women deployed to Iraq smoke.
"The one critically important fact is this: for returning military personnel, in most cases, it is still early enough to alter the course of health damage resulting from smoking and, hopefully, prevent any permanent heart and lung damage," Fiore says.
Photo: Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times