Navy pressed to end tobacco sales at sea

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Sailors could be stuck at sea without being able to buy cigarettes if anti-smoking lawmakers get their way.

The Navy is under pressure to enact a ban on tobacco sales aboard Navy ships and at bases from Democratic senators who want the military out of the cigarette business.

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A group of five Democratic senators sent Navy Secretary Ray Mabus a letter, released publicly on Monday, that urged him to follow through with the proposed ban under consideration by the service.

“We commend your efforts and hope that you will move forward with this initiative, which will renew emphasis on the health of our dedicated sailors and Marines as well as provide for increased combat readiness,” Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) wrote.

But Mabus is also hearing from at least one lawmaker who says the Navy shouldn’t prevent sailors from buying tobacco products.

In a letter to the secretary, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a retired Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was opposed to the proposal limiting or restricting “access to legal products that servicemen and women choose to purchase on their own.”

“While I recognize the Navy believes removing tobacco products would help in ‘maximizing the readiness’ of sailors and Marines, it’s my belief that the Navy should worry less about intruding on the personal decision-making of these same sailors and Marines, while creating added burdens in the process,” wrote Hunter, who is not a smoker, according to an aide.

Asked about the sales ban Monday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not endorse it outright, but he seemed to lend support to the idea.

“I think it does need to be looked at and reviewed,” Hagel said at a Pentagon press briefing. “I think we owe it to our people.”

Mabus has previously taken steps to increase smoke-free areas on bases and limit smoking on submarines. Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, a Mabus spokeswoman, told the Navy Times last week that Mabus “has implemented a number of initiatives to improve the culture of fitness in the Navy and Marine Corps, and curbing tobacco use is part of that improvement.”

A ban of tobacco sales on ships would certainly complicate the lives of smoking sailors, current and retired sailors said.

Sailors currently have access to stores onboard to buy tobacco products, and a ban would require smokers to plan ahead by purchasing cartons of cigarettes before going out to sea. The cost would also go up, as prices at exchange stores are typically cheaper than at retail outlets.

One of the underlying issues for the Navy is the drop in revenue that would hit the Navy Exchange Services Command if it stopped selling tobacco products.

The Democratic senators — including Durbin, the chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, and Reed, the No. 2 Democrat on the Armed Services Committee — argued that the high cost of healthcare associated with tobacco use outweighed the potential loss of profits.

“While annual profits from all Department of Defense (DOD) authorized military tobacco sales are roughly $90 million, a DOD report from June 2009 estimated that the annual tobacco-related military health costs and lost productivity are about $1.9 billion, or 21 times greater than the annual sales,” the senators wrote.

The senators cited a 2008 Defense Department study that found smoking rates in all branches of the military was 30.6 percent, compared to 20.6 percent of the general population.

“Wide availability could contribute to the fact that nearly half of all smokers surveyed had attempted to quit but were unsuccessful,” the senators wrote.

Hagel also cited healthcare costs in outlining his support for a review of tobacco sales.

“The healthcare costs are astounding, well over $1 billion just in the Department of Defense, on tobacco-related illness and healthcare,” Hagel said. “Now the dollars are one thing, but the health of your people — I don’t know if you put a price tag on that.”

Hunter argued that the Navy’s decision to potentially end tobacco sales was a political one, and he questioned why the Navy wasn’t spending time on “far more immediate priorities.”

“Removing tobacco sales is perceived as more of a political decision, intended to make a point, than it is a decision that supports our sailors and Marines — regardless of personal feelings on the individual and legal use of tobacco products,” Hunter wrote.

Hunter said he was concerned that, if the Navy adopted a tobacco sales ban, the other services would soon consider making a similar move.

In February, CVS Caremark announced it was pulling cigarettes and other tobacco products from its shelves.

The decision drew praise from President Obama, who said CVS “sets a powerful example, and today’s decision will help advance my administration’s efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as bring down health care costs.”

Eight Democratic senators, including the five who wrote to Mabus, also urged other top drug stores to follow suit. 

The push for stopping tobacco sales in retail stores drew some criticism, including from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who questioned in a tweet why “many of the same people applauding CVS for not selling tobacco are OK with making it easier to buy and smoke pot.”