The Danger of Combat That Nobody Talks About

Nobody would think to send marijuana or alcohol to soldiers on the front line. Should parents be worried that their children will come back from the Israeli army addicted?

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An Israeli gunner smokes a cigarette as he sits next to 155mm shells at an artillery position near the Lebanese border in northern Israel, July 31, 2006.
An Israeli gunner smokes a cigarette as he sits next to 155mm shells at an artillery position near the Lebanese border in northern Israel, July 31, 2006.Credit: AP
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

It was the summer of 2014, the campaign in Gaza was advancing and the public was as usual standing by its sons, sending them packages stuffed with chocolate, cookies, junk food – and cigarettes. A popular radio show broadcast a promotion for sending tobacco to the troops while an NGO ran this ad: “Our warriors in Gaza aren’t dying due to smoking! They are now asking: Send cigarettes, please.”

The front line was awash with cigarettes, sent by well-meaning people or companies with an agenda.

Nobody would think of adding marijuana or alcohol to these packages, but cigarettes seem to make sense when supporting the war effort. Any teenager may puff here and there, but the availability of cigarettes and the boredom of service, or the stress of the front line combined with somebody tossing over a pack of cigs, can turn the occasional puffer into a serious addict. Nicotine is addictive, points out Dr. Laura Rosen of Tel Aviv University.

She knows the problem well: Her father volunteered to fight in World War II at age 17, until which time he’d been an opportunistic smoker. He came back from the war a heavy smoker and died young – and painfully – of lung cancer.

Soldiers and cigarettes are longtime companions. In World War I, cigarettes were part of the routine supplies sent to the front line. They were considered almost as important as bullets: a way to alleviate stress and boredom. Opponents to the cigarette shipments were practically considered traitors, and the soldiers came home addicted.

A century later, little seems to have changed in Israel. A peer-reviewed study published in January found that just over a quarter of new draftees to the Israel Defense Forces smoke – but by the time they’re discharged, the proportion of smokers in the same group rises above a third.

An Israeli soldier smokes a cigarette at a checkpoint next to the Gaza Strip, June 19, 2008.Credit: Dan Balilty / AP

Looking at 30,000 Israeli soldiers doing their compulsory service between 1987 and 2011, the scientists found that the proportion of smokers rose from 26% at the time they were drafted to 37% when they were discharged. At the end of their service, the prevalence of smoking was greater among men (40.3 percent) than women (32.4 percent), but the increase during their time in the army was similar.

Eighteen percent of draftees who hadn’t smoked before the army were smoking afterwards, and combat soldiers of both sexes were the most at-risk for addiction. Some, however, quit while in the army: 12% of those who smoked when they were drafted kicked the habit in uniform.

So are parents sending their kids to the army and getting them back with a dangerous addiction? Lawmaker Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), who chairs the Knesset Committee on Drug Abuse, says that since the IDF is supposed to be the people’s army, it should discourage smoking – but it doesn’t.

Israel has smoking laws, such as the ban on smoking in public venues. But the army can set its own rules, which could theoretically be stricter than the civilian ones. It could ban cigarette sales at base kiosks or require more frightening warnings on cigarette packs. However, it doesn’t.

An Israeli soldier smokes while he waits for transport after returning to Israel from southern Lebanon, August 5, 2006.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Soldiers are not banned from smoking out in open areas, though the army stipulates a list of specific places where they may not: the base clinic, dining room, hallways, showers and toilets. A commander may also set aside a smoking room. The prevailing approach in the Western world is to ban designated places for smoking, since they encourage the habit.

Soldiers can also buy as many cigarettes as they want on the base, with some of the revenues returning to the army coffers. Even if they wanted to, commanders can’t ban them from their bases because they are mandatory products in army kiosks.

Zandberg is peeved: “The army controls the soldiers’ hairstyles, the shoes they wear and even what they do during their leisure time,” she says. “Suddenly, when it comes to this, it almost entirely shakes off the matter in a manner that borders on encouraging smoking.” She believes the army should take steps to avoid becoming an incubator for tobacco addiction.

A senior health care official suggests that the reason for the army’s seeming indifference to the soldiers’ smoking is that it gets them while they are young, and there is no sense of urgency because the damage smoking will cause is decades down the line. They become a problem for the health care system, not the army.

However, cigarettes do cause immediate damage. Soldiers who smoke take more sick days than non-smokers. Tests done in other armies found smokers to be less accurate shooters, Dr. Hagai Levine of the Hebrew University told the Knesset during a debate on the issue.

Soldiers are exactly the group the cigarette companies most want to recruit, says Dr. Amos Hausner, chairman of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking. In fact, he says, the army and its kiosks are part of the cigarette companies’ marketing strategy. He brings up a document dating from the 1990s from the American cigarette maker Brown & Williamson, which specifically mentions its plans in Israel. The document is one of millions revealed in the various lawsuits against Big Tobacco in the United States.

Not only do cigarette sales make up 30 to 40 percent of army kiosks' profits, but much of that money reaches the base itself, giving the army an incentive to not block the selling of cigarettes.

The army declined to answer questions about the proportion of kiosk profits derived from cigarette sales.

Changes, but not in the IDF

Naturally the Israeli army is not the only one where smoking is widespread, but times have changed and the IDF hasn't. While the Western world has declared war on tobacco, cracking down on sales and intensifying the warnings on cigarette packs, for Israel's army, there’s nothing new under the sun.

The United States Army, on the other hand, realized that smoking among soldiers harms their combat readiness and raises military health care costs and started taking steps to curb it: Some, like no smoking in the barracks, are pretty drastic. It aspires to become a smoking-free army, says Rosen.

Incidentally, she points out, smoking and the sale of cigarettes were banned on Israeli medical bases, and the soldiers coming for treatment did not protest.

There is also a moral argument: Army service in Israel is mandatory. Perhaps the IDF, more than other armies, has a moral duty to discourage unhealthy habits. Zandberg puts it bluntly: The army should not abandon its people to the number one preventable cause of death.

“The army has our teenagers in full possession and determines what they will do every day for three years. How can they let them put the most dangerous thing of all into their bodies?” Zandberg questions. “It’s falling asleep on duty.”

The army commented that it’s working with the Health Ministry and the Israel Cancer Association to reduce smoking among draftees, and added that the number of smokers has been declining. The army also stressed that the average age Israelis start smoking is 18, regardless of whether they serve in the army.

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