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RAF MILDENHALL, England — If Lt. Col. Sherry Sasser were in charge of the military, smoking would be prohibited on all U.S. bases.

And smokers would be required to pay their medical bills if their health problems were related to their unhealthy lifestyle.

“I think a big part of it is changing the culture,” Sasser said of her ideas to stop military members from smoking. She is the chief of health promotion for the Air Force surgeon general and a former smoker herself, so she knows the effort required to kick the habit.

“I enjoyed [smoking],” she said in a telephone interview with Stars and Stripes. “I enjoyed every part of it — the taste, the immediate buzz you get.”

She said smoking is not a habit, but an addiction. The nicotine enters a smoker’s system seven seconds after that initial puff.

“Heroin doesn’t get into your system that fast,” she said.

The Air Force has seen a drop in its smoking population over the years. From 1980 to 1992, a time when America at large was pushing a smoke-free lifestyle, the percentage of smokers in the Air Force dropped from 43 percent to 29 percent.

But it has been stagnant since then. Sasser said the data, which is collected by dentists, fluctuates between 27 percent and 31 percent.

“Some bases are as high as 37 to 40 percent,” she said. “We have some bases that are at 20 percent.”

She said overseas bases usually have higher percentages because the Europeans have not pushed the anti-smoking campaign.

Ronda Carter, health promotions manager for the Health and Wellness Center at RAF Mildenhall, England, said the base recently sent suggestions to curb smoking up the chain of command.

The plan would prohibit smoking while in uniform and never on base. Failure to pass the physical training test would prompt a mandatory briefing that would include anti-tobacco information. It also asks the Air Force to eliminate the price difference between cigarettes on base and off base, which, in Europe, could double the cost of a pack.

The current operations tempo in the military is hurting efforts to curb tobacco use, Sasser said. People sometimes turn to tobacco in times of stress, whether they have been prior users or not, and deployments are filled with stress.

Smoking is not just an expensive and unhealthy practice, she said. Because it is an addiction, it can dominate the thoughts of someone who should be thinking about something else.

“There’s a part of your mind that is plotting and planning how you can get that next cigarette,” she said. “That’s a readiness issue.”

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