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A Target in Their Sights: US Military Service Members

by Chantel Folks

· social norms,military,tobacco,smoking,industry target

“The plums are here to be plucked.”

That is how big tobacco companies described its new strategy to grow cigarette sales within the military community in the 1980’s. (1)

Although smoking rates have decreased in past years, thanks to the efforts of anti-smoking campaigns and organizations, the military community is still disproportionately affected by the tobacco industry. The latest studies have shown that 24 percent of military personnel smoke in comparison to 19 percent of the general population. They also show that lower paid, younger enlisted service members smoke more than higher paid officers. Working on a Navy base for 10 years I’ve seen first-hand how ingrained tobacco is in the military community. Unfortunately, smoking in the military has become like cursing and tattoos: it’s just kind of expected. In fact, 38 percent of service members report that they didn’t start smoking until after they joined the military.  

The military is also unique as a tobacco retailer. Since military commissaries and exchanges are able to sell products at a discounted rate, service members were able to by tobacco products at as much as 73 percent below the local retail price until a few years ago.(2) Now tobacco products can’t be sold at discounted prices, but studies have shown, that access to cheap tobacco products in the past has contributed to a pro tobacco culture, initiation of smoking, and overall higher tobacco use rates in the military. My sister just started working at a commissary on a Navy base and she tells me that almost every other sale she makes includes a tobacco product.   

Thanks to tobacco industry marketing, smoking and tobacco use has become normalized in military culture. Through tobacco control campaigns and organizations, like the truth initiative and Tobacco Free Jacksonville, we can initiate a program in boot camps that requires new recruits to go through a tobacco education class to change this social norm. While education alone is not enough to change behavior, it’d be a step in the right direction. We can serve those who serve us and send smoking rates on the decline in the military, like we’ve done in the overall population.


1.     military?, H., military?, W., & performance?, D. (2018). Tobacco is a social justice issue: the military. Retrieved from

2.     Populations, I., Bondurant, S., & Wedge, R. (2018). INTRODUCTION. Retrieved from