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NAPLES, Italy -- The Navy is considering a ban on all tobacco sales on ships and bases due to health concerns over the high rate of tobacco use among sailors, officials say.
The idea is "one option on the table" as Navy Secretary Ray Mabus explores ways to further curb tobacco use among sailors, said a Navy official who who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.
However, Congress is likely to weigh in on the matter.
Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the secretary, confirmed Mabus is taking a new look at tobacco use across the service.
"We've already taken one step by ending price subsidies for tobacco products, and Secretary Mabus has asked his staff to look at additional ways to improve the health and readiness of our force," she said in an email. "We are in the early stages of this process."
Navy Times first reported discussion of the possible ban.Studies show military members use tobacco at higher rates than same-age civilians. A 2011 Defense Department survey showed 24 percent of troops smoked, compared with 20 percent of civilians of the same age. It also showed that more than 60 percent of Marines had used some form of tobacco in the previous 12 months.
Pentagon and service regulations on tobacco have tightened in recent decades after studies linked cigarettes, second-hand smoke and smokeless tobacco to health problems and poor fitness. DOD commissaries stopped discounting cigarettes in 1990s, and the Navy eventually limited their sale to exchanges on bases and ships.
The Navy has also tightened rules around smoking across the fleet. Beginning in the 1990s, it eliminated smoking breaks and required designated smoking areas be set up away from non-smokers in offices, surface ships and submarines. The Navy then banned smoking in submarines in 2010.
Still, pressure from the cigarette industry and the efforts of on-base retail outlets to lower prices have combined to keep tobacco products available, and generally cheap, on military bases, as well as Navy ships.
After the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodor Roosevelt, Capt. Stanley W. Bryant, banned smoking and cigarette sales on the ship in 1993, a congressional subcommittee drafted language cementing cigarette sales on all ships, and handing over control of exchange stores on ships to the military's Morale, Welfare and Recreation program. The Navy then followed with a new regulation allowing smoking on all vessels.
Although the statute was overturned later by Congress, the story of the Roosevelt demonstrated the former power of the tobacco lobby and its interest in the military market.
Legislators on the MWR panel received higher donations from tobacco companies than their congressional colleagues, according to a National Institutes of Health study on the Roosevelt case. Internal documents from Philip Morris and its lobbying arm, the Tobacco Institute, showed that the Roosevelt ban was an industry target.
Critics say the military still encourages tobacco use by allowing discounted sales at its exchanges. DOD rules require that exchanges sell cigarettes at no more than the "most competitive" price in the surrounding community and no less than 5 percent below that price. Yet media reports have shown that many exchanges still price tobacco products well below those rates.
In 2012, the Navy required its exchanges to price cigarettes at no less than the "most competitive" price outside the gates, removing the 5 percent discount.