AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Citing a poor image, health concerns and potential damage to patients, the commander of the 31st Medical Group has banned his airmen from using tobacco while in uniform.

Col. Michael Schaffrinna said the move, which became policy March 1, wasn’t one he took lightly. But he said be believes it’s one he needed to make.

“The Air Force and the image of the Air Force represent something to people,” he said. “What does smoking do for that image? From my viewpoint, it reflects negatively.”

Smoking has been prohibited from buildings on base and limited to designated areas outside for years. But the move against using tobacco in uniform means the 370 or so airmen in the group face the strictest measures in the U.S. Air Forces in Europe — and possibly in the world. The policy does not affect civilian personnel, American or Italian.

Senior Airman Jennifer Montiel, the base’s tobacco cessation manager, said about 50 airmen in the group are known to use tobacco products. She said that’s a lower percentage than the estimated 28 percent of active-duty personnel on base who light up or chew.

A vocal tobacco opponent, Montiel quit after a decade of smoking, a habit she started when she was 11. She cites numerous studies and statistics that point to health hazards for not only those who smoke, but others around them.

Smokers who have been taking breaks at designated areas often carry traces of the smoke and odor on their uniforms when they return to work, she said.

“We have received many complaints,” she said.

Schraffina said that’s only one of the reasons he decided to implement the ban. The group’s hospital is adjacent to the base’s schools, and airmen who smoke are not being good role models, he said.

He also cited the Air Force’s renewed emphasis on physical fitness. According to Montiel, 46.5 percent of those on base who rated “poor” or “marginal” on the fitness test are tobacco users.

Schaffrinna said he recognizes that tobacco use is only one health concern for his airmen. He said the base’s Health and Wellness Center is also offering classes on healthy eating and physical fitness. He is encouraging all his airmen to take the classes and plans on enrolling in the healthy eating class himself.

Montiel said the Health and Wellness Center’s smoking cessation program has led the Air Force with a success rate of 84 percent since February 2006.

She said not every airman on base is ready to give up the habit. She’s preached her message to every squadron on base and has received “a few bad e-mails.”

“And someone wrote something on my car that wasn’t very nice,” she said.

Schaffrinna, who said the policy was vetted by the base legal office, knows that not everyone loves his policy either.

“I haven’t had anything come at me directly,” he said. “Indirectly, I’ve heard there are some people unhappy with the policy.”

Attempts last week to find some of those critics were not successful.

Schaffrinna said he’s not naive enough to believe that no one will violate the policy while in uniform at home or while in a car. And his policy doesn’t prohibit airmen from smoking while not in uniform. But anyone from the group caught using tobacco products in uniform could face action under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

After the policy was highlighted in the base paper, The Vigileer, Schaffrinna said he received a few inquiries from other squadrons at Aviano along with a request from a stateside base to see the policy.

Montiel said she believes similar policies soon will be in place elsewhere.

“My hope is we could mandate the same behavior across the wing,” she said. “This is the direction of the United States Air Force and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

New policy is strict – but not the strictest

The new anti-tobacco policy for the 31st Medical Group is stricter than the anti-smoking policy Italy adopted at the beginning of 2005, but not nearly as tough as some policies.

The Italian law prohibits smoking in public buildings and businesses such as restaurants. Several other countries in Europe have similar measures. None of them prohibits employees from smoking during their work hours.

There are such policies.

WEYCO Inc., a Michigan-based company that specializes in establishing employee benefit plans for other companies and managing them, created a media stir in fall 2003 by prohibiting its employees from smoking. Ever.

It offered help to employees who wanted to quit and told those who didn’t they could find jobs elsewhere. A posting on the company’s Web site states that the firm believes it had to live by standards it advises other companies to pursue.

“We encourage every employer to take a hard look at managing health-care costs related to smoking and other tobacco use,” according to the site.

— Kent Harris

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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