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John Paradis: This year make D-Day ‘Don’t Smoke’ Day

GIs and smoking are about as American as apple pie. There’s a bit of nostalgia seeing old photographs or news reels of soldiers with unfiltered cigarettes dangling from their lips, whether in combat or in a crisp service dress uniform.

But there’s nothing nostalgic about this cold hard fact: Tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke kills approximately 443,000 people in the United States each year. It is the largest cause of preventable illness and death in our country. The rate of smoking among veterans is higher than the rate among other Americans.

It’s absolutely understandable how veterans got to this position. From the Civil War until 1956, federal law required the Army to provide an inexpensive supply of tobacco to enlisted personnel. During World War II, an estimated 75 percent of soldiers became smokers. The government included cigarettes in combat rations in both world wars. Nearly a third of all tobacco sales went to the U.S. armed forces.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the military stopped providing free cigarettes to its personnel. While smoking has declined overall in the civilian population, it remains much higher in the military.

According to government statistics, a third of the active-duty military smoke compared with a fifth of the adult population. Although tobacco use in the military declined overall from 1980 to 2005, it has increased in the past several years with the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Nearly half of the troops returning from deployments are hooked on tobacco.

Like their predecessors in Vietnam, Korea and the world wars, the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan often say smoking and chewing tobacco relaxes them, eases tension, breaks up the “hurry up and wait” stretches of monotony and just calms their nerves. But researchers say tobacco use contributes to their stress because nicotine acts as both a stimulant and a depressant.

Nov. 15 will mark the 37th anniversary of the Great American Smokeout, annually set aside for smokers to quit for 24 hours in hopes they will continue to abstain.

Millions will try the cold turkey treatment. One of them will be Joe, a friend of mine, and an Army veteran, who says he will take the plunge this year and try to extend the 24 hours into a lifetime.

A smoker for 30 years, he started lighting up when he enlisted in the Army to fit in with his fellow soldiers. Two years later he was hooked on Marlboros. Now a veterans benefits counselor, he says the societal pressure in the military to smoke is still high.

Once an athlete, he says he now gets winded just walking up a flight of stairs. He says he always promised himself he would quit by the time he was 40 and after he retired from the Army. He has tried to quit since then, but that was 10 years ago.

He has tried phased programs, hypnosis and lectures by doctors, but this year he plans to try out a VA smoke-cessation program. He hopes being around other veterans will encourage him to quit, just as he was encouraged to start smoking when he was 20 years old.

“It’s a new tour of duty in my life I want to correct,” he says.

I wish him luck. I tell him that he is courageous and being a tough soldier, that he can beat the odds. More than 70 percent of adult smokers say they want to quit, but only 5 to 10 percent are successful on any given attempt. Since the percentage of smokers among veterans is higher than the rest of the population, smoking persists as one of the VA’s biggest public health challenges.

For many veterans, I realize that this column will be seen as just another person nagging them to quit, but I hope this appeal reaches friends and family members who can gently and lovingly nudge their veterans to consider a life without tobacco. It’s much easier to quit when you have the support of loved ones.

I also realize that our veterans have earned the right to smoke and the right to do pretty much anything to themselves as long as it’s not illegal. That was Joe’s philosophy, too, until he saw a close relative, also a veteran, die of emphysema after a two-pack-a-day habit. Now he says he wishes he was harder on himself and on his relative to quit.

On D-Day, photographs show American GIs with cigarettes after they stormed Omaha Beach. As we look ahead to Veterans Day this Sunday, I would much rather look to a different D-Day photo of the future, one that shows veterans smoke free. In this D-Day, I want the D to stand for Don’t Smoke.

Veterans enrolled in VA health care can register for a VA smoke cessation class in Northampton by contacting Eva Parrish at 584-4040, ext. 2825.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the public relations manager for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, based in Leeds. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.

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