Letter: Veterans and smoking

Posted: 5/28/2010

Dear Editor,

As we celebrate the women and men who have selflessly served our country this Memorial Day, I am writing to raise awareness about the disproportionate number of veterans who smoke and who suffer from respiratory diseases such as lung cancer.  As a veteran of the Vietnam era, a registered nurse since 1968 and a staunch opponent of Big Tobacco, I am personally and professionally passionate about this issue.

Many military personnel first begin using tobacco during their time of duty.  A recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) indicates that 60 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan use tobacco, compared to approximately 20 percent of their civilian counterparts. Service men and women who are battling mental health issues like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) display even higher rates of tobacco use.  Not surprisingly, veterans are 25 to 75 percent more likely than other people to be diagnosed with lung cancer.

Regardless of how long a person has smoked, there are immediate and long-term benefits to quitting.  About 20 minutes after smoking your last cigarette, blood pressure and pulse rate drops.  Within a few weeks, heart attack risk has decreased, circulation has improved, walking and exercising become easier and you won’t find yourself coughing or wheezing as much.  Moreover, people who quit smoking drastically reduce their risk of dying from a smoking-related disease, and improve the quality of health in their remaining years.

Fortunately, the importance of tobacco prevention and smoking cessation resources for veterans and other vulnerable population groups has recently gained momentum with Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) program.  Under the oversight of the Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this program is poised to reduce tobacco use and save lives in 44 communities across the country, including Chicago.

Locally, the Chicago Tobacco Prevention Project, led by Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, will increase the prevalence of smoke-free environments and reduce smoking rates. The project will involve outreach in conjunction with the Chicago Department of Public Health and local VA Hospitals to raise awareness and provide linkages to cessation services.  

Improving the personal well-being of our veterans should not only be a national priority, but a Chicagoland priority.  With the impetus of the Chicago Tobacco Prevention Project, and a renewed call to heed the evidence of short and long-term health benefits to quitting smoking, I hope that veterans, policy makers and health service providers will embrace the opportunity to contribute to a significant decrease in veterans’ smoking rates in our region.

Sincerely,
Diana Hackbarth, RN, PhD
Board member, Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago
Professor, Community Health Nursing, Loyola University Medical Center