A lot of young Soldiers are committing slow suicide - they just won't admit it to themselves.

Despite plenty of warnings, tobacco use remains high among Soldiers. When you ask them why, there isn't anything too surprising about what they say.

It is no great revelation that young people start using tobacco to "fit in," or from peer pressure. Especially in combat units, lighting up, sharing a dip, or stuffing a cheek is a social occasion. Part of the bonding that takes place, especially in a combat zone, involves sharing a habit that is deeply ingrained in our image of Soldiers at war. The tragedy of it all, is that it makes so little sense.

Tobacco users usually say they smoke, dip or chew because it relaxes them. But the physiological effects of nicotine are anything but relaxing. The few minutes of mild euphoria are balanced by increased nervousness, shakier hands, poorer coordination and decreased night vision. Those are not the sorts of trade-offs a combat Soldier should want to make.

Then there is the problem of quitting.

If you ask tobacco users what it would take to get them to quit, the most common response is "when a doctor tells me to."

That has to be the ultimate irony. The surgeon general (our nation's top, official doctor) has been telling tobacco users their habit was life-threatening for decades. All they have to do is look at the label on the pack, tin or bag.

I know, they are waiting for a more personal diagnosis. But should anyone want to wait until they are told they have cancer before they kick the habit'

We once talked to a sergeant first class who described his daughter's fear for his life - but the Soldier didn't attempt to quit dipping until a dentist spotted pre-cancerous abnormalities on his gums.

I once met a Soldier who waited to be told he HAD to quit. Doctors were attempting to rebuild his jaw - they had to remove much of it because of the cancer chewing tobacco caused. He had photographs from his days as a high school baseball player. Good-looking kid. Not any more.

Dying from any form of cancer is pretty unpleasant. Just ask someone who has lost a loved one. It isn't sudden; it isn't painless; it isn't a clean way to go. Living with emphysema or disfigurement isn't easy, either.

And the cost!

The average smoker would see almost as big an increase in spending money by kicking the habit as by getting promoted.

Throw in the smell, the dirt, all the other negatives ...

I know, it just doesn't matter, not to the young men and women who are following their peers into tobacco use. No matter what we say, most of them will wait until they know for sure they have to quit.

For many of them it will be too late.

But when you seek that perceived relaxation, that extra bit of fellowship with other users, just try to remember - you're killing yourself.

Some ways are just slower than others.

David W. Kuhns Sr. is editor of Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.

Page last updated Fri May 8th, 2009 at 16:57