YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Stepping outside for a quick smoke is taking on new meaning at Air Force bases around the world.
According to Air Force regulations to take effect next year, those jonesing for a cigarette will need to find a “designated tobacco area” before lighting up.
The areas will be at least 50 feet from sidewalks, parking lots or building entrance ways. The no-smoke zone — which includes all tobacco products, including snuff and chewing tobacco — is extended even farther from playgrounds (100 feet) and medical facilities (200 feet).
Even tobaccoless electronic cigarettes are covered by the ban.
The Air Force issued the regulation in late March, which gives bases 18 months to comply as the service continues trying to smoke out tobacco users from its ranks.
The policy aims both to reduce secondhand smoke exposure and generally to discourage tobacco use, which costs $1.6 billion annually in medical expenses and lost days of work, according to Defense Department figures. The adverse effect of tobacco use on productivity and fitness also is noted by the Air Force in its revamped policy.
“Commanders and leaders should strive for tobacco-free (Air Force) installations and decrease supportive environments for tobacco use,” it states.
The Air Force last updated its tobacco policy in 2002, prohibiting smoking within 50 feet of any building, but that rule has been only loosely enforced despite the ubiquitous signs.
The updated regulation specifically excludes on-base housing with independent air-handling systems but allows bases to ban smoking in those units if second-hand smoke becomes a problem. It also requires housing with shared air-handling systems to be designated smoke-free.
Most installations already have banned smoking in dormitories for single airmen. Some already have banned smoking in base housing — including porches, balconies and outdoor common areas.
The new policy also prohibits the sale of all tobacco products at Air Force base clubs, hospitals and all other Air Force organizations except for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.
According to the new AFI 40-102, smokers technically can’t even light up in their own cars while on base, said Maj. Stacy Van Orden, flight commander of the health and wellness center at Yokota Air Base.
The Air Force already bans tobacco use during basic training and in other formal training environments.
In briefing commanders and airmen on the new regulations that will take effect at Yokota in April, Van Orden said she emphasizes that the Air Force “is not trying to infringe on your private space. We’re infringing on your work space.”
Yokota currently has more than 100 smoking areas — not all of them official — and will eliminate all but 22 by spring, she said. Only six of the current 100 areas adhere to the new policy’s minimum standards. The other 16 will require a waiver from the wing commander, she said.
For all its specifics, such as also banning the use of hookahs and water pipes everywhere but designated tobacco zones, the updated policy does not define penalties for breaking the rules. Those decisions will be left to local commanders, Jonathan Stock, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon, told Stars and Stripes by email.
Smokers ostensibly will be the easiest to catch.
“In general, disciplinary measures should be reserved only for violators who willfully and flagrantly persist in using tobacco outside of (designated tobacco areas) despite repeated reminders,” the policy states.
Although infractions are “not meant to be punishable under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice,” Van Orden said, those who repeatedly violate the policy potentially could be face disciplinary action for “not adhering to Air Force standards.”
Although no Air Force bases have gone completely smoke-free, that’s the goal of the latest policy.
Some airmen contend that while the new smoking policy is reasonable, it likely won’t convince smokers to give up the habit.
Staff Sgt. Jonghawan Kim, who has smoked for a decade, said he wants to quit, but not because of the increasing Air Force pressure.
“The only reason I’m trying to quit is because of my girlfriend,” said Kim, who’s stationed at Yokota. “She hates it. She’s definitely my motivation.”
Stricter rules on where lighting up is OK might discourage novice smokers, but hard-core smokers will only quit when then they’re ready he said.
“If the individual doesn’t have the strong will to quit, he will continue to smoke,” Kim said.
Not everyone is happy about the plans to make bases smoke-free.
Policies like the one the Air Force is enacting and other smoking prohibitions “take peoples’ choices away, said Michael Zehner, a founding member of Hawaii Smokers Alliance, which formed in 2006 to fight a state smoking ban enacted that year.
“We shouldn’t live in a nanny state,” said Zehner, former sailor turned Navy civilian employee at the Pearl Harbor.
Still, anti-tobacco policies are “generally seen by leadership as the politically correct thing,” Zehner said. “It’s enforced through fear.”