Time for the IDF to combat smoking

Anyone who has spent time in the IDF is familiar with how smoking and military service seemingly go hand in hand.

Man smoking 370 (photo credit: Ina Fassbender/Reuters)
Man smoking 370
(photo credit: Ina Fassbender/Reuters)
Recently I returned home from two weeks of IDF reserve duty in an isolated outpost the Jordan Valley. I drank a lot of water to protect myself from dehydration, read numerous books to keep boredom at bay, and applied sunscreen to protect myself from the scorching sun. While thankful that my service ended uneventfully, one hazard that I was unable to protect myself from was the danger of second-hand smoke.
Anyone who has spent time in the IDF is familiar with how smoking and military service seemingly go hand in hand. At the army canteen (shekem) one sees 18-yearold conscripts buying packs of cigarettes, army bases are littered with cigarette stubs, and allowances are even made for “smoking breaks.” Israel has made some impressive strides in curbing smoking, yet the statistics show that further progress is improbable without confronting the prevalence of smoking in the IDF.
A completely informal poll among my fellow reserve soldiers revealed that many of them either began smoking or became heavy smokers during their mandatory service.
This is corroborated by Health Ministry statistics showing that whereas only 29.8 percent of male soldiers inducted in 2011 reported smoking, that figure rose to 37% for those completing their service, with a similar rise reported among female soldiers.
Even those who manage to stop after finishing their mandatory service frequently revert to smoking again during reserve duty, though they promise to stop immediately upon returning home (for the sake of the children).
AS A society we have failed our youth.
It is unconscionable to place 18-year-olds, still children in many ways, in a high pressure, high intensity, high stakes environment, where smoking is the norm and where strong pressure is exerted to smoke and be “one of the guys.” The IDF is not working to combat this phenomenon and this failure continues to afflict these young soldiers, now addicted smokers, long after they have left the IDF.
The cost to the individual soldiers, the IDF and the State is enormous.
Those who smoke turn into less healthy soldiers and as they age a huge burden is placed on the health infrastructure of the state.
It is time for the IDF to confront the challenge of smoking among its troops. A concerted multi-year campaign needs to be waged to highlight the multiple dangers of smoking, and to encourage and assist those who wish to stop.
The IDF, like the US military, needs to set for itself the goal of a “smoke-free military.”
Army canteens do not need to stock cigarettes and the army should be more responsive to the needs of soldiers who wish to avoid second-hand smoke.
A MORE radical proposal would be to raise the legal cigarette purchasing age from 18 to 21. Some might claim that we cannot give 18- year-olds weapons, and not trust them to make an educated decision about smoking.
Yet the addictive power of nicotine, the stressful conditions of the army, and the long-term adverse health effects of smoking compel us to consider raising the age to 21, which would substantially reduce smoking amongst conscript soldiers.
Ultimately the very culture of the IDF must change. This is not something that can be accomplished easily, but the IDF must prioritize the health and welfare of its soldiers.
Our soldiers deserve no less.
The writer is the director of Perspectives Israel. He also works at Shatil. He has a master’s in International Relations from the London School of Economics.