Smoking Among Veterans: Protecting the People Who Protected Us

Veterans fought for the freedoms we continue to enjoy in the U.S. and much of the world today, but the experiences they went through left many of them with a deadly habit. They protected us, and now it’s our turn to help protect them from smoking-related disease.

Veterans have faced horrors that many of us can’t even imagine, but they don’t get to leave those issues on the battlefield. In recent years, we’ve become more and more aware of the various issues that persist for veterans when they return home, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and other mental health issues. However, the problems they face don’t stop there, as the high rates of smoking among veterans show. The question is: how can we bring down the smoking rate among veterans? How do we protect those who protected us?

Smoking Among Veterans: The Statistics

The problem with smoking among veterans is best shown by comparing the percentage of them who smoke with the percentage of the general population who smoke. A study from 2010 did just this, using data from over 200,000 veterans collected from 2003 to 2007. The results showed that the smoking rate among veterans was around 27%, compared to 21% in the general population at the time. This rate was decreasing throughout the period of the study, but it remained higher than the general population throughout. In short, veterans smoke a lot more than non-veterans.

Smoking During Wars

Although there are more important reasons that veterans tend to smoke more often than non-veterans, one issue that can’t be ignored is the impact of war rations and the generally widespread nature of smoking during wars.

Cigarettes were included in soldiers’ rations in both world wars and in Vietnam, with the First World War being particularly well-known for widespread smoking among the military. The New York Times wrote that cigarettes “lighten the inevitable hardships of war,” and the reasoning is, depressing though it may be, easy to understand. While cigarettes only provide a superficial relief from stress, depression and other pain, when you’re stuck in a filthy trench being bombarded with bullets, the temptation to light up one of the cigarettes included in your rations would be understandably hard to ignore.

Cigarette rations were outlawed in the mid-70s, but free cigarettes for soldiers, targeted promotions and more were still common during the Gulf War.

PTSD, Depression and Smoking in Veterans

Veterans are affected by mental health issues much more than the general population. The suicide rate among veterans is higher than among the general population, unemployment is high and the percentage of veterans with serious emotional or mental health problems who seek help is unfortunately low.

Two issues in particular are relevant to the high smoking rates among veterans: PTSD and depression. Statistics show that about one in five veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or major depression. In the general population, by comparison, the rate of major depression is about 6.7%, and about 8% have PTSD, though this latter figure in particular already includes a lot of veterans.

All of this shows that veterans have more mental health issues than the general population, and this is understandable given the experiences they have in combat. However, these mental health problems are also central to understanding the high smoking rates among veterans.

A study looking into the association between mental health issues and smoking rates among veterans supported this assumption. The research focused on veterans with depression, but still found that the veterans who smoked had more severe depression than the ones who didn’t smoke, and they were also more likely to have PTSD. In addition, the veterans who smoked also drank more heavily than the ones who don’t.

Understanding Smoking Among Veterans

The points in the previous section show that mental health problems and substance abuse – whether alcohol, cigarettes or illicit drugs – are closely linked. This is actually a broader conclusion that applies to all addictions: they are basically poor coping mechanisms for psychological, emotional or other issues.

These same conclusions apply to ordinary citizens, but they’re much easier to understand in people like veterans, who’ve gone through an incredibly stressful experience and come home with serious psychological issues. This is ultimately why smoking among veterans is a big issue.

Helping Veterans Quit Smoking

The good news is that veterans can quit smoking in the same ways as any other smoker. With medicines, nicotine replacement therapies and alternative nicotine products like smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes available, there are plenty of options. However, due to the mental health issues faced by many veterans, behavioral counseling is a particularly valuable approach for veterans. This can not only help them quit smoking, but it can also help them address broader issues, including helping them cope with their PTSD and helping them talk through other problems.

Veterans spent their lives protecting us, and now we need to protect them.