Statistical Smoking Guns

by Henry on July 11, 2005

Kelly Bedard and Olivier Deschênes have an article forthcoming in the American Economic Review providing strong statistical evidence that service in the US military is bad for your health – but not (only) for the obvious reasons. Even apart from combat mortality, old soldiers tend to die younger; 2 million veterans from the 1920-1939 cohort (generation) died prematurely. The effects of this, measured in terms of “years of potential life lost,” were roughly as bad as those of the total number of combat deaths in World War II and the Korean War combined. Why so many dead? The authors’ evidence points to one key factor: smoking. During World War II and the Korean war, soldiers were issued cigarette rations, and could buy more cigarettes at subsidized prices. Tobacco companies donated cigarettes to the troops, in part so that soldiers would get hooked on their product, building a long term customer base. Excess veteran mortality after the age of 40 is most pronounced for lung cancer and heart disease, both of which are strongly linked to smoking. Bedard and Deschênes calculate that 36-79% of the excess veteran deaths through lung cancer and heart disease can be attributed to military-induced smoking for veterans from World War II and Korea. The military no longer supplies cigarettes to soldiers as part of their rations. However, tobacco products continue to be sold at subsidized prices at army base PXes. As Bedard and Deschênes argue, this is very bad policy indeed.

(thanks to Erik for the link).



Delicious Pundit 07.11.05 at 10:10 am

However, tobacco products continue to be sold at subsidized prices at army base PXes. As Bedard and Deschênes argue, this is very bad policy indeed.

Is it? Wouldn’t the stress-calming effects of cigarettes (reputed, I guess; I don’t smoke cigarettes) be useful for a soldier? It sacrifices the long term on the altar of the extreme short term. But that’s what armies do.


joel turnipseed 07.11.05 at 10:23 am

Ah, yes… smoky treats: remember them fondly. In the Gulf War, the PX tents sold tax-free cigarettes for something like .85 a pack (when prevailing price was above $2 in the U.S.–what are they now, like five bucks, no?). Of course, given the risks of war, a pack or two of smokes a day hardly seems excessive (and, in all honesty, probably saved my life by keeping me awake on long midnight ammo runs after way too little sleep).

As to the mortality… I wonder if this figure isn’t going to change drastically for current (say, recent two decades’ worth) military service members? My friend Jonathan Shay has said to me that you are actually somewhat better off now serving in the military than not (and significantly so as a minority). This sounds flat wrong if you are a member of the post-industrial elite, but if you consider that some 15% of U.S. adults do not have a high school degree or equivalent (and are thus ineligible for military service), and the jobs available to these folks, you don’t have to be a stats guru to realize that military service would have to be really bad for your health to overcome the poor life conditions for the 15% lopped off the bottom of societies goodie-pool.

Also, it should be noted that the health care (physical and mental) in the military, as well as basic social services (education, etc), is actually quite good–and traumatic care is some of the best in the world (certainly much better, and more rapidly delivered, than what’s available to dangerous domestic occupations such as trucking, farming, and fishing). Something I discovered when writing an article (never published) about the “suicide” scandal in OIF is the following: U.S. military personnel, despite popular perception to the contrary, actually seek psychological counseling at a rate significantly higher than their civilian counterparts (note: not significantly higher incidence, but much higher rate of treatment among those suffering). Partly this is because force-readiness training among NCOs and Officers is so high, I think, and also because as hard-ass as the military can be, you can’t get fired and from my experience working college jobs in factories and construction sites, and subsequent experience in corporate America, showed me, the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to perform in civilian life are in many respects less honest and decent than I was ever showed by the best Gunny Hartmann impersonators in the Marine Corps.


duane 07.11.05 at 11:05 am

This entire post is just an excuse to use that title, isn’t it? :)


Tim 07.11.05 at 11:08 am

Leave it to the economists to present “cigarettes kill” as an original research finding. Too few equations in medical and public health journals for their taste, I guess.


Zaoem 07.11.05 at 12:20 pm

“Leave it to the economists to present “cigarettes kill” as an original research finding.”

You miss the point. The interesting finding is that the military induced the smoking that kills: cohorts with many veterans have much greater death rates from smoking-related diseases than do cohorts with few veterans.


DVRS 07.11.05 at 12:39 pm

Isn’t it a bit hasty to decide that it’s “very bad policy” for the military to make smoking cheaper for its soldiers without even trying to factor in the rather large amount of pleasure, relief, and contentment that people get from smoking cigarettes?


joe o 07.11.05 at 1:15 pm

When my dad was in the army they used to have “smoke breaks”. If you didn’t smoke you had to keep working.


Jake 07.11.05 at 1:24 pm

I haven’t been able to satisfy myself yet as to the reality or hyperbole of health effects of exposure to depleted uranium, but if it is indeed real, I wouldn’t be surprised if that higher mortality evidences itself for the veterans of more recent wars.


abb1 07.11.05 at 2:15 pm

If you want to live a long, healthy and happy life, why would you want to join military in the first place? It’s not healthy from any angle, wartime or piece.


tvd 07.11.05 at 2:59 pm

Yeah, but back in the WWII and Korean War days, there was not a cough in a carload.

Cigarettes didn’t become harmful to your health until the 1960s.


nick 07.11.05 at 5:40 pm

I believe there was a story not so long back about how many US troops have taken up smoking since being deployed to Iraq: partly to deal with tension; partly to deal with boredom; partly to build rapport with Iraqis, by offering them PX Marlboros instead of local coffin-nails.

If the PXes stopped selling ciggies, then you’d be hearing of the North Carolina tobacco companies shipping over planeloads of the buggers. (And remember, NC has a pretty high number of military bases within its borders.)


eudoxis 07.11.05 at 6:32 pm

The link between smoking and lung cancer is sustained even after smoking cessation while the link between smoking and heart disease is reduced after cessation. Some ten years after smoking cessation, smoking is no longer a risk factor for heart disease.

Still, the VA has long made an issue of smoking and claims up to a third of its costs are from smoking effects.


Tom T. 07.11.05 at 8:00 pm

I may be wrong, but I’m not sure that cigarette prices on base are subsidized as such, rather than simply being cheaper because they are not subject to state tax. This is true of all PX and commissary sales, but perhaps more pronounced as to cigarettes since the state taxes thereon are often much higher than for food or other consumer sales.

Also, it’s not clear from the article that the tobacco companies ever actually donated cigarettes to the Government; the authors only write (somewhat ambiguously) that “one could therefore view military-induced smoking as the result of tobacco companies ‘donating’ cigarettes to the military.”

This is just pedantry on my part, however, and none of this is meant to detract from the central findings of the article.


save_the_rustbelt 07.11.05 at 9:44 pm

I asked my 88 year-old father-in-law about this.

His reply – “I didn’t see your mother-in-law for three years and people were shooting at us – smoking seemed like a good idea at the time.”


j.pickens 07.11.05 at 9:59 pm

The more important point is to WIN THE WAR so the troops can come home and smoke themselves to death, or whatever peaceful pursuit they so richly desire.

The success of the US military, with the exception of two of the three UN wars, is exemplary, this smoking stuff notwithstanding.


bi 07.11.05 at 11:05 pm

tvd: “Why are you criticizing our troops?”


bad Jim 07.12.05 at 2:14 am

My father was a veteran of WWII, though he never saw combat, and after he died at 62 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, my brothers, to the point of shouting, insisted that the fact that he smoked like a fish and drank like a chimney was responsible for his demise, notwithstanding that his deplorable habits aren’t considered risk factors for this disease.

Some people do get hit by a bus, after all.


Villaveces 07.12.05 at 1:07 pm

I’m surprised there are no arguments posted for SECOND hand military smoke. The assertion that the military-industrial-smoking complex is killing even MORE people than previously thought once again is not sustained by any of the above posts. I think one factor, just to name one, that should be taken into account, is the huge impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is quite common among veterans, not even to mention the legion of other mental diseases that occur more commonly among military veterans than among the population at large. Get over it people, smoking is simply not as big a deal as it’s portrayed. Oh yeah, and malaria continues to kill more in Africa than AIDS and probably will continue to do so for a long time. Read the stats, not the fads.


Ray Davis 07.12.05 at 6:56 pm

To echo Joel, my parents are living unusually healthy (and I expect lengthened) lives thanks to the military’s lifetime single-provider health insurance. (They stopped smoking before many of their non-military relatives and neighbors.)


Uncle Kvetch 07.13.05 at 8:30 am

thanks to the military’s lifetime single-provider health insurance


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