Durbin: Pentagon Must Act to Reduce Risks of Tobacco Related Illness Among Servicemembers

Durbin-Chaired Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Approves Elimination of Military Discount for Tobacco Products

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, today called on Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to implement a measure included in the Fiscal Year 2015 Defense Appropriations Bill that eliminates the military’s price discount for tobacco products. Almost one-quarter of U.S. servicemembers smoke, and more than one in three military smokers began doing so after enlisting.

“Smoking rates among servicemembers are 20 percent higher than the rest of America and use of smokeless (spit) tobacco is more than 450 percent higher,” Durbin said. “Discounting tobacco products lures even more servicemen and women into this unhealthy and deadly addiction.”

Studies show that a ten percent increase in cigarette prices reduces consumption by 3 to 7 percent among adults. Yet, tobacco sold at military exchanges is subject to a 5 percent discount compared to prices in the local community, and because of lax enforcement and ill-defined community comparisons, discounts can be as high as 25 percent off or more.  The Fiscal Year 2015 Defense Appropriations Bill – which was passed by the Subcommittee yesterday and is scheduled to be considered by the full Senate Appropriations Committee tomorrow – fully eliminates these price discounts on tobacco products sold on military installations.


In June, Durbin chaired a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on Fiscal Year 2015 funding requests for the Department of Defense (DOD). During the hearing, Durbin questioned both Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, regarding the practice of discounting tobacco products for servicemembers. Video of Durbin’s remarks at that hearing are available here.


In March, Durbin joined U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal and others in calling on U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to prohibit the sale of tobacco products aboard naval bases and ships, a move the Department of the Navy is currently considering. Today, Durbin called on Secretary Hagel to support Secretary Mabus and the U.S. Navy’s efforts to implement innovative tobacco control policies and reduce tobacco use.


Durbin’s provision in the Fiscal Year 2015 Defense Appropriations Bill is supported by the Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the American Public Health Association, and the Commissioned Officers Association.


Durbin’s full letter to Secretary Hagel is available below.


July 16, 2014



The Honorable Charles T. Hagel
Secretary of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC, 20301-1000


Dear Secretary Hagel:


As you consider reforms to reduce tobacco use in the military, I ask you to note a provision in the fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill that eliminates the military’s price discount for tobacco products and expresses the Committee’s view that the Department of Defense should act aggressively to reduce the risks tobacco poses to our service members.  

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and at present rates, approximately 175,000 current active duty service members will die from smoking.  That figure is twenty five times higher than the total number of U.S. military casualties resulting from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Rates of tobacco use remain persistently higher among service members compared to civilian populations. In 2011, 24.5 percent of service members smoke, compared to 20.6 percent of civilians.  Differences in use of smokeless tobacco are even starker: 12.8 percent of service members used smokeless tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, compared to 2.3 percent of the civilian population.  Defense-wide surveys indicate that more than one in three military smokers began doing so after enlisting and that cigarette use is heavily concentrated among junior enlisted personnel—those least able to afford the habit or the long-term health consequences.

Tobacco compromises the strength and readiness of our military and drives up long-term health care costs. Service members who smoke experience decreased muscle endurance, delayed wound healing, increased hearing loss, increased respiratory illness, and increased surgical complications. The Department of Defense spends more than $1.6 billion each year on tobacco-related medical care, increased hospitalizations, and lost days of work. In 2008, the Veterans Affairs Department spent more than $5 billion to treat veterans with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense fiscal year 2015 bill eliminates price discounts on tobacco products sold on military installations.  A similar provision was introduced over thirty years ago when the DOD released its first report on the detrimental impact of tobacco on the health and welfare of the U.S. military.

Research consistently shows that increasing the price of tobacco is one of the most effective methods of reducing use and preventing initiation. A ten percent increase in cigarette prices reduces consumption by 3 to 7 percent among adults. There is no reason taxpayers should be subsidizing the price of these deadly products.

You recently ordered a Defense Department review to evaluate tobacco use in the military.  I support this effort and eagerly anticipate its final recommendations. The Navy has consistently led the way in implementing innovative tobacco control policies, eliminating price discounts on tobacco products at Naval exchanges in 2012. I urge you to support Secretary Mabus as he continues to move forward with his efforts to reduce use and ask that you require the other military branches to do the same. 

In March, Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs wrote, the “prominence of tobacco products in retail outlets, and permission for smoking breaks on duty, sustains the perception that we are not serious about reducing the use of tobacco.” I urge you to tackle this culture of tobacco use head on.  The lives of too many service members hang in the balance.



Richard J. Durbin