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IDF looks to quit selling cigarettes on army bases

Military rolling out a series of measures to douse the habit, which is harming soldiers’ operational capabilities

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli soldiers light cigarettes while on patrol at the Anzac Memorial just outside the central Gaza Strip on April 13, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers light cigarettes while on patrol at the Anzac Memorial just outside the central Gaza Strip on April 13, 2016. (Corinna Kern/Flash90)

Beginning November 1, cigarettes and other tobacco products will disappear from the shelves of stores in dozens of military bases around the country as the army steps up its fight against smoking, the Israel Defense Force’s manpower chief said Sunday.

The ban on cigarette sales on those 55 bases — 65 stores, in total — is the most visible of a series of steps that the army is rolling out to combat what it has designated as a serious health risk not only to the smoking soldiers but to their comrades, 80 percent of whom report being exposed to secondhand smoke.

In addition to halting the sale of tobacco on some bases, the military will begin scaling back the number of smoking areas on bases, create a rule against smoking outside those designated zones, encourage commanders to refrain from smoking in front of their subordinates, and begin labeling smoking soldiers as such on their medical forms, Brig. Gen. Meirav Kirshner, chief of staff of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, told The Times of Israel.

For now, she said, being identified as a smoker would not have an impact on a soldier’s status or fitness level; it would only be used for tracking purposes. But that could change.

An IDF officer smokes a cigarette near the Gaza border in January 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash900

In addition to the new rules, Kirshner said the IDF is looking to help soldiers who want to quit smoking, with army-sponsored support groups and other programs.

She said the military identified smoking as a problem following a number of studies showing the high rates of tobacco use during military service.

A study published earlier this year found that 37% of discharged male soldiers identified as smokers, compared to 26% of new male recruits. (The number is lower among female recruits, at approximately 15%.)

That 37% is approximately twice the overall national rate.

For the army, Kirshner said, it isn’t just a societal health problem, but one with tangible, negative effects on the military’s operational capabilities.

“It harms [soldiers’] fitness and their ability to carry out their positions,” she said.

Kirshner noted that smokers, as a group, take more sick days and report more health problems than nonsmokers.

Asked why the army was focusing on cutting out tobacco from army stores but not other unhealthy products like junk food, Kirshner said she believed there was a difference.

Israeli soldiers waiting for a bus near Ramallah, in the West Bank, Oct. 1, 2009. (Matanya Tausig/Flash 90)

For all its deleterious health effects, unlike cigarettes, “a bag of snacks doesn’t have a warning label.”

However, she noted, the army has started other programs designed to improve soldiers’ overall health.

The army’s new anti-smoking campaign is being carried out in collaboration between the Manpower Directorate and the IDF’s Medical Corps, Kirshner said.

There have been some attempts in the past to limit cigarette sales to soldiers, but the she said the latest moves mark a far more dramatic step.

The 55 bases where cigarettes will no longer be sold starting in November are all so-called “open” bases, where soldiers typically go home at the end of the day. The ban will not affect “closed” bases, which are generally in farther-flung locations.

So, for example, tobacco products will no longer be sold at the army’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv, but soldiers will still be able to purchase a pack of cigarettes on the Nafah army base in the Golan Heights. (A full list, in Hebrew, can be found here.)

The understanding is that changing the rules on those geographically distant bases might unwittingly cause other problems, like the creation of a cigarette black market.

The chief of staff decided that nothing matters besides the health of the soldiers

After three months, the military will review the effects of the trial and determine if the ban will be applied to “closed” bases as well, Kirshner said.

She noted that it would cause a financial loss for the military, as military stores — known by their current name kaveret and by their older name shekem — currently stock some 2.4 billion tobacco and tobacco-related products, including cigarettes, tobacco, rolling papers and lighters.

The money from the sale of those products ordinarily gets funneled back to the military, but Kirshner said the army is prepared to give up on that source of income.

“The chief of staff decided that nothing matters besides the health of the soldiers,” she said.

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