Airman Justin Hopkins finishes the last few puffs of a cigarette before going on duty last week. His unit, the 48th Security Forces Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, has recently been banned from using tobacco products on the job.

Airman Justin Hopkins finishes the last few puffs of a cigarette before going on duty last week. His unit, the 48th Security Forces Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, has recently been banned from using tobacco products on the job. (Charlie Reed/S&S)

RAF LAKENHEATH, England — The commander of the 48th Security Forces Squadron has banned his airmen from using tobacco products while on duty — one of the more drastic anti-tobacco efforts at the military’s disposal.

Maj. John Northon adopted the policy Oct. 1, about a month after meeting with base officials to discuss the squadron’s tobacco-use rate — the highest being at Lakenheath, which is near 40 percent.

"We gave them a little time to prepare for it," said Northon. "I knew it wasn’t going to be a popular decision."

With smoking, dipping and chewing on the rise among the junior enlisted ranks, the military is stepping up its efforts to curb tobacco use among troops, from prohibiting use while on duty or in uniform to more sweeping pushes for base-wide bans.

"Drastic" policies like that "can be the most effective way of impacting the problem," said Chuck Watkins, director of the Communications Research Division at TRICARE Management Activity in Virginia.

Watkins manages the Department of Defense-funded "Quit Tobacco: Make Everyone Proud," one of several large-scale tobacco cessation programs the military spends millions on every year.

The $10 million, five-year Proud campaign is making strides, Watkins said. But coupling it and programs like it with localized efforts such as the one imposed by Northon would be the most effective way to help troops to kick the habit, he said.

"We’re trying to decrease acceptance of tobacco use in the military work environment. But that’s not something I can do with a campaign from Washington. It’s got to be in line with changing attitudes of line supervisors and the command element," he said.

Banning tobacco in the workplace is not unique to the military. Public and private employers across the U.S. have used similar approaches to cut back on healthcare costs, though civilians are more able to protest while troops simply obey orders.

"In the military we give up a certain degree of our civil liberties because of the nature of our job," said Northon, himself a recovering smoker. He considered that his new policy might be a blow to morale, but he pressed forward in the end "because it does tie directly to mission effectiveness."

The demanding nature of his troops’ jobs — at home and particularly while deployed — requires them to be in good health, he said.

"I can’t smoke and be in my top physical condition to go deploy. People know using tobacco is a bad idea. Hopefully this will be a little extra motivation to quit," said Northon, 36. His battle with cigarettes gives him "a little more credibility when I say we’re going to stop doing this."

Northon said he feels "better and better everyday" as a non-smoker, and a handful of members from his unit have sought formal help to quit tobacco through the base’s health and wellness center. But it’s too early to tell if the new policy is making its intended difference, he said.

"We’re definitely going to be tracking [physical training] scores," Northon said.

Still, 48th Security Forces Squadron airmen are allowed to smoke before and after work. And they do.

Sitting inside a wooden pagoda behind the unit’s armory last week, Airman Justin Hopkins savored his last cigarette before going on duty.

"It’s rough, but I understand the policy, though," said Hopkins, 22. He said he has smoked slightly more off-duty since the ban took effect and has no plans to quit.

"I just do what I’m told," he said. "It’s the easiest way to get along in the military."

Despite the ability of commanders to rein in troops while on the clock and the military’s multimillion dollar efforts to curb tobacco use, quitting is an individual choice, said Bill Blatt, manager of tobacco control programs for the American Lung Association.

Workplace bans such as the one imposed by Northon "can be effective," Blatt said. "Anything that makes it more difficult can lead them toward quitting. Ultimately, though, the decision to quit is the smoker’s."

The lung association has worked with the military for 30 years to help both active-duty and retired troops quit smoking. Its longest running campaign, "Freedom from Smoking," and TRICARE’s Proud program have started shifting more resources online to target a younger demographic.

Between continued deployments — which have been linked to rising tobacco use — and the attitude of invincibility held by many younger troops, it’s an uphill battle, Blatt said.

However, compared to the days when cigarettes were doled out in rations and tobacco companies were allowed to send troops free products, the military is making progress by chipping away at the institutional acceptance tobacco once enjoyed across the services.

"The military has really changed their views on tobacco and that mirrors society as a whole," Blatt said.

For more information on the cessation programs, visit or

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