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Military’s push to discourage tobacco use stumbles amid cheap cigarettes – kansascity.com

Marlboro maker altria taking e-cigs nationally – abc news

A pack of Marlboro Reds averaged $5.49 at military retail exchanges last year &#x2014 84 cents less on average than what the Wal Mart stores nearest to the bases were charging, a new national study finds.

True, base exchanges are the military&#x2019 s version of department stores and are expected to offer personnel and their families good deals on merchandise.

But their everyday low cigarette prices fly in the face of Department of Defense policies aimed at discouraging smoking and the Defense Department&#x2019 s own instructions dating to 2005 that base exchanges price their tobacco products no lower than 5 percent below the most competitive commercial price in the local community.

The average exchange price, the study found, was 12.5 percent lower than what the Wal Marts charged. Some bases undercut the local Wal Marts by $2 or $3 or more per pack.

Cheap cigarettes are &#x201C a price leader,&#x201D said Christopher Keith Haddock, a smoking researcher with the Institute for Biobehavioral Health Research, based in Leawood. &#x201C It can get people into the store.&#x201D

Haddock&#x2019 s study appears this month in the American Journal of Public Health.

The culture of smoking runs deep in the military &#x2014 as far back as World War I cigarettes were added to soldiers&#x2019 rations &#x2014 and smoking rates among young veterans match those of civilians back in the 1960s and &#x2019 70s before tobacco&#x2019 s health risks were fully appreciated.

But in recent years, the armed services have taken steps to curb smoking.

&#x201C The Defense Department is committed to helping service members and their families live a healthy lifestyle,&#x201D Defense Department spokeswoman Joy Crabaugh said. &#x201C Tobacco free living is one aspect.&#x201D

Crabaugh said she could not directly address any of the findings of Haddock&#x2019 s study, but added, &#x201C The military offers tobacco cessation programs and has policies designed to discourage the use of tobacco.&#x201D

The military has a social marketing program called &#x201C Quit Tobacco, Make Everyone Proud.&#x201D It offers personnel free smoking cessation medications and a 24/7 telephone hotline for counseling.

Despite his study&#x2019 s findings, Haddock said the military&#x2019 s tobacco control initiatives are sincere it has a vested interest in keeping soldiers from smoking.

Numerous studies have found that smoking reduces combat readiness, Haddock said. Smokers are less physically fit, have poorer night vision, are less mentally sharp and heal more slowly from wounds. Tobacco related medical care and lost productivity cost the military about $1.6 billion annually.

&#x201C I think there are enough people at high ranks who want to see (smoking) conquered,&#x201D Haddock said.

But Haddock, who served in the Air Force, said the military will be fighting against an ingrained culture of smoking in its ranks.

About 32 percent of active duty military smoke, compared to about 20 percent of the civilian adult population. Nearly 45 percent of service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been smokers.

Haddock&#x2019 s own focus group research found many reasons why soldiers were attracted to smoking.

&#x201C Smoking breaks are one of the few reasons to take a break in the military,&#x201D Haddock said.

The base &#x201C smoke pits,&#x201D the designated smoking areas on bases, become places where people can gather informally to socialize.

Sarah Stout of Independence found that was the case when she served in the Marines.

&#x201C There were a good amount of people who smoked,&#x201D she said. &#x201C Sometimes we&#x2019 d go to the smoke pit because someone from another unit was smoking, so we&#x2019 d go over and talk to him.&#x201D

Stout, who was stationed in Iraq in 2008 and 2009, is participating in a smoking cessation program offered by the Kansas City VA Medical Center. She wants to be smoke free for her two young children.

But even more important than the camaraderie and breaks from routine as reasons to continue smoking, Haddock found, were the convenience and low prices of cigarettes at base exchanges.

&#x201C Pricing and convenience are always at the top of the list,&#x201D he said.

The Defense Department rule on pricing tobacco is vague enough to offer managers of the approximately 200 exchanges nationwide a lot of &#x201C wiggle room,&#x201D Haddock said.

&#x201C You can virtually set prices the way you want to,&#x201D he said.

Haddock&#x2019 s study follows up his research from 2011 that found an even larger 24.5 percent price gap between the exchanges and their neighborhood Wal Marts. Most military exchanges did raise their prices somewhat in the past two years, likely a reaction to higher wholesale costs, Haddock said. But the gap was narrowed mostly by steep price cuts by Wal Mart stores.

There were still some drastic differences between military and civilian prices. The exchange at the West Point Military Academy was selling Marlboros for $5.80 per pack last year, less than half what the nearest Wal Mart was charging. The Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois charged $4.80 per pack, while the Wal Mart charged $8.29.

The Wal Mart prices Haddock&#x2019 s study quoted include state and local taxes that aren&#x2019 t charged at military exchanges.

Haddock found 17 exchanges had actually lowered their prices from 2011 to 2013. The exchange at Fort Leonard Wood, about 85 miles south of Jefferson City, shaved 20 cents off a pack, bringing it to $4.40. Meanwhile, the local Wal Mart cut its price from $5.22 to $4.86.

&#x201C My guess, it was a marketing decision. The policy of an exchange isn&#x2019 t necessarily consistent with the Department of Defense policy to have a ready, fit fighting force,&#x201D Haddock said. &#x201C I would be very surprised if the commander or anyone in the medical corps at Fort Leonard Wood knew about it.&#x201D

Exchanges aren&#x2019 t likely to stop selling tobacco or even change their pricing voluntarily because the profits they generate are essential to a host of community programs military bases offer to personnel and their families, said Larry Williams, a dentist and tobacco researcher who worked with Haddock on the cigarette pricing study.

Exchange profits fund military Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs, such as fitness centers, libraries, social events and golf courses.

&#x201C Their hands are tied. They know they have to be cheaper than the prices outside. Not only do they use the profits, but the soldiers, sailors and Marines and their families will be suffering without them,&#x201D Williams said. &#x201C We need the (MWR) money coming from a nontainted source.&#x201D

The military also faces the political power of the tobacco industry, said Ruth Malone, a tobacco control researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

&#x201C This is one of their last big recruiting grounds. They really want to keep the military market,&#x201D Malone said. &#x201C They frame it as &#x2018 Are you going to take this away from our fighting boys?&#x2019 rather than &#x2018 Are you going to take away our profits?&#x2019 &#x201D

Malone and Haddock both think the military will eventually go smoke free as much of the rest of society has.

&#x201C The issue for the military is how are they going to achieve an end game for tobacco, not will they,&#x201D Malone said.