Over a Third of Israeli Soldiers Smoke by Time They're Discharged, Study Finds With Horror

'Traditionally, militaries have been associated with smoking,' says one researcher, but that's no reason to offer soldiers discounted cigarettes at canteens.

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An Israeli soldier smokes a cigarette on his tank in northern Israel, August 11 2006.
An Israeli soldier smokes a cigarette on his tank in northern Israel, August 11 2006.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky/BauBau
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Join the army, see the world and smoke? A new peer-reviewed study has found that just over a quarter of new draftees to the Israeli army smoke – but by the time they're discharged, the proportion of smokers in the same group rises to well over a third.

It's bad enough that so many Israeli kids are smoking even before being drafted – 26.2 percent of them, to be precise, found the scientists from three Israeli universities. By the time they complete the army, 36.5 percent are smoking, according to their paper published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, which looked at nearly 30,000 soldiers from 1987 to 2011. 

Why do yet more join in puffing on the foul weed, knowing full well that it's a deadly habit?

"Look, there a few things going on," suggests Dr. Laura Rosen of Tel Aviv University, qualifying that the study didn't look at motivation. "This is an age when people start smoking. That's the truth of the matter. Add to that the military environment. Traditionally, militaries have been associated with smoking."

Israel army reservists on a base, May 2006.Credit: David Bachar

They are. Just ask any Hollywood producer whether the soldiers in his war flick waiting tensely for the action to start are petting puppies or smoking cigarettes that they manfully ash on the floor. 

And moreover, the military is a tense environment (not to mention a deathly boring one) and smoking is one way that people tend to alleviate tension.

A soldier drafted into the Israel Defense Forces is in an enclosed environment. "The soldiers are there all day – so the military environment strongly influences their health, for good or bad," points out Dr. Hagai Levine of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "By nature, because of the boredom, exposure to smokers and the social habit, smoking flourishes. That is why a concentrated effort is needed to create an environment that encourages non-smoking."

Yet times and even militaries change. The American Army has made vast strides toward eradicating the tobacco use, say the scientists, including Dr. Salman Zarka from Haifa University and the IDF Medical Corps. They are urging Jerusalem to take steps to turn the Israeli army into a non-smoking zone. (It bears noting that smoking is categorically illegal in public venues in Israel, including all government buildings.) 

"The military is an environment that can encourage smoking or encourage non-smoking," Levine says, and this is a golden opportunity to catch young Israelis before it's too late and they start. "There is an opportunity in the army to create an environment where cigarettes aren't available, where it's hard to start smoking, like in the U.S. Army."

"When I was a doctor in the paratroopers, I introduced a program – to create a smoke-free base," Levine tells Haaretz. "We managed to lower smoking rates to the point of becoming a smoke-free base."

The sooner the better. Among those who were nonsmokers at enlistment, 18 percent started smoking during service, say the scientists. Men and women with combat profiles were also at an increased risk, after adjusting for personal, family and military factors.

Israeli soldiers pause for a smoke while others keep watch during the Sinai Peninsula campaign, October 1956.Credit: GPO

This correspondent will add that hanging around the base doing nothing is also a tremendous incentive to smoke.

Finally, the prevalence of smoking was greater among males at discharge (40.3 percent) than females (32.4 percent), but the increase during service was similar, the researchers found.

It is well within the Israeli government's incentive to take steps emulating the American Army, including – for heaven's sake – not to let soldiers buy discounted cigarettes at canteens. Some 50 to 65 percent of all smokers die prematurely from smoking-related causes. 

"Once you're in the cycle of addiction hard to break out," Rosen adds. "And the best thing is prevention. This is a place where – because so many of our kids to go army – it's the perfect place to control the beginning of smoking in society."

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