Smoke-free surface ships in the Navy?
Stars and Stripes February 26, 2011
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Navy has stamped out smoking on submarines and many hospital campuses, but ships are unlikely to get similar treatment anytime soon.
For years, the service has shown little interest in banning smoking for sailors at sea. Now, new academic research to be published next month reveals at least one reason why — an act of Congress would be required to reverse a federal law that requires all Navy ships to sell cigarettes and tobacco.
The pro-smoking rule is written into the U.S. Code and was quietly passed by Congress nearly two decades ago after intense lobbying by the tobacco industry, according to the study, “Forcing the Navy to Sell Cigarettes,” which will be published in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
The law is a lasting reminder of tobacco industry influence that blocked the Navy’s early attempts to ban smoking on ships in the 1990s — including the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier — and helped form the foundation of current shipboard tobacco regulations, according to the study and a Stars and Stripes examination of tobacco industry documents archived at the University of California.
“The repercussions have been felt for years and they will continue to be felt,” said Elizabeth Smith, a study author and University of California associate adjunct professor of social and behavioral science.
Today, sailors regularly light up on weather decks and around ventilated smoke pits while at sea, and cigarettes are readily available in ship stores operated by the Navy Exchange.
Ship commanders are permitted to request particular brands and additional stocks of cigarettes in the stores but cannot ban the sale of cigarettes on their ships, Navy Exchange spokeswoman Kristine Sturkie told Stars and Stripes in a written response to queries.
The U.S. Code mandates the Navy Exchange “shall” sell tobacco in the ship stores along with other items such as athletic clothing, beverages and stationery.
The wording “is really subtle but it makes a huge difference,” Smith said.
The law has ensured that cigarettes have remained on ships for the past 17 years, regardless of whether ship captains want them, and it remains in the code at least partly because the Navy has little interest pressing Congress for an amendment, Smith said.
“Who is going to go out and fight to change that policy?” Smith said. “Somebody very high up has to care a lot about this to get these policies changed.”
For now, eliminating cigarettes on ships is not on the service’s to-do list.
Smoking rules are typically set by the secretary of the Navy, whose most recent shipboard smoking instructions, issued in 2008, direct that captains must designate smoking areas either outside or in well-ventilated inside areas.
Despite the rule this year making submarines smoke-free, there has been no discussion of banning smoking on surface vessels, and there are currently no smoke-free Navy ships, according to Cmdr. Jason Salata, spokesman for Naval Surface Forces in San Diego.
That was not always the case.
The USS Roosevelt became the Navy’s first smoke-free aircraft carrier in the summer of 1993 when then-Capt. Stanley Bryant pulled cigarettes from the ship store and banned all smoking. At that time, smoking was not allowed outside on weather decks and was only permitted inside the ship in some crew areas, including two smoking heads, which was the case on most Navy ships.
“The [American Medical Association] said in January 1993 that secondhand smoke caused cancer, period,” Bryant, a retired rear admiral, told Stars and Stripes. “I looked around and said, ‘Gosh, I can’t have the crew subjected to secondhand smoke.’ ”
The Navy was planning to ban smoking on all ships and make the entire fleet smoke-free by 2000, according to Smith’s research, tobacco industry documents and media reports from the time.
But the Roosevelt ban and the push for a smoke-free Navy alarmed the tobacco industry.
“It is reported that all aircraft carriers in the Atlantic fleet will be designated entirely smoke-free in a phase-in process,” Rita O’Rourke, a Philip Morris employee in charge of military sales, wrote in a March 1993 memo to the company’s director of federal and government affairs summing up lobbying efforts.
“If we do nothing,” O’Rourke continued, “then it is safe to say the individual branches of the services will go their own way to establish policies that will further restrict the use of tobacco and possibly eliminate product sales in any case.”
The company began lobbying a congressional subcommittee that held sway over Navy ship stores, the Morale, Welfare and Recreation panel of the House Armed Services committee, according to internal correspondence documents.
Over the next year, tobacco industry contributions to the MWR subcommittee surged. Eight of the 11 members were already getting industry contributions and on average, members went from receiving 13 percent more tobacco money than other congressional representatives in 1992 to 93 percent more in 1994, according to Smith’s smoking study.
Philip Morris USA declined to comment on the tobacco study or internal company documents obtained through the University of California.
“We don’t have a comment on the old documents you reference,” Kenneth Garcia, a spokesman for parent company Altria, wrote in an e-mail response.
Navy leadership immediately came under pressure to reverse the Roosevelt ban from “tobacco-interested congressmen,” Bryant said.
The commander of the Navy Exchange was called before the MWR subcommittee to hear complaints about the smoking ban, while other members of Congress threatened to remove ship stores from the military commissary system, which would have cut government subsidies for other products and forced price increases on sailors, the tobacco study says.
The Navy’s top enlisted sailor at the time, John Hagan, went to the Roosevelt leadership and asked them to reconsider the smoking ban due to the political pressure, said retired Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Jim Herdt, who was the Roosevelt command master chief in 1993.
Hagan “had been invited over to speak with congressmen about what we were doing,” Herdt told Stars and Stripes. “They were pretty intense in terms of him doing something [about the ban].”
The Navy scuttled the Roosevelt ban after three months of political fallout. It was replaced with smoking regulations that have precluded any subsequent bans and remain the norm on Navy ships today.
Smoking was barred in most areas inside ships and smoking areas were designated outside. (Under current rules, captains can choose to create smoke pits in well-ventilated, unmanned areas inside ships.)
The following year, members of the MWR subcommittee inserted the requirement that ships must sell tobacco into the U.S. Code, ensuring captains like Bryant could never eliminate cigarette sales aboard Navy ships.
Greg Scott, Philip Morris director of federal affairs and corporate government affairs, wrote in an April 1994 internal company letter that the new law was the product of “intense negotiations with the Navy.”
It “transfers authority over all ships’ stores from ships’ captains to the Navy Exchange Command and mandates that cigarettes be sold in all ships’ stores,” he wrote. “We will be working with the MWR panel to attempt to ensure the … amendment is not repealed.”
Navy follows society
Despite the continued availability of cigarettes aboard ships, Bryant and Herdt maintain that the battle over the Roosevelt’s short-lived smoking ban has proven a victory for the health of nonsmoking sailors because it has kept hazardous secondhand smoke mostly outside the skin of ships.
“My issue wasn’t with the individual smoker killing himself day by day. I am not a zealot,” Bryant said. “It was just an issue of the kids breathing smoke when they didn’t want to.”
The rule requiring the sale of tobacco might be viewed by some as a trade-off, he said.
In the 17 years since the carrier ban was reversed, the Navy has been content to leave the decision to smoke up to sailors. But bans have begun to appear again in some areas of the service.
Smoking was barred on submarines this year due to concerns that ventilation systems could not filter secondhand smoke, and Navy Medicine has aggressively pushed tobacco use off the grounds of about 47 medical facilities, according to Navy Medicine spokeswoman Shoshona Pilip-Florea.
But the Navy is not breaking new ground with its smoking ban at medical facilities — that’s become standard practice across the United States, said Capt. Larry Williams, department head of Health Promotion and Analysis at the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center.
“Navy medicine is actually following suit with civilian hospitals in the community,” Williams said. “It’s not that we are different.”
Herdt said he does not believe the Navy will attempt to impose smoking bans on its surface ships as long as smoking is accepted by the general public.
“I think the Navy will pretty much be smoke-free when the rest of the country is smoke-free,” he said. “I think it is going to be pretty difficult to ban.”