ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – A team of more than 40 medical and military experts from the Department of Defense, supplemented by subject-matter experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Lung Association, non-profit and private sector organizations, and educational institutions gathered recently at Aberdeen Proving Ground united by their motivation and determination to reduce tobacco use in the military.
Sponsored by the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, the “Tobacco Deep-Dive” focused on developing programs that support individual and group behavior change, and a supporting social environment. Reducing tobacco use is a strategic objective of the Military Health System.
The U.S. Army Public Health Command served as the host for the event, and Maj. Gen. Jimmie O. Keenan, USAPHC commander, offered remarks to inspire the group to succeed.
“Smoking has a devastating effect on the health of individuals and on military readiness,” said Keenan. “What you are doing here will help to change the culture of the military.”
The process of changing this culture will not be easy. Research indicates that tobacco is a formidable foe in the military. The 2008 DOD Survey of Health-Related Behaviors indicates that nearly 30 percent of active-duty smokers initiated the habit after joining the military, and 40 percent of deployed service members have smoked.
“Reforming tobacco policy is something that cannot be accomplished overnight,” said USAPHC Command Sgt. Maj. Gerald C. Ecker. “Troops often look to smoking as a way to relieve stress.”
But Keenan and Ecker encouraged the attendees to work hard, and be persistent in their efforts.
After hearing preliminary briefings on the state of tobacco use in popular culture, the attendees brainstormed 13 ideas to combat tobacco use in the military. These ideas were later refined to five innovations that addressed tobacco cessation and prevention from multiple angles.
On the final day of the workshop, the attendees briefed their recommendations to senior military medical advisers. Some of the innovations that workshop attendees thought would help reduce tobacco prevalence in the military include the following:
An initiative aimed at going beyond brochures and traditional “push” communications by using holographic, three dimensional, life-sized projections that create the effect of a live person to communicate an engaging tobacco cessation message.
A stronger warrior initiative that will target and seek to reduce the rate of tobacco use during deployment. The initiative will identify and pair service members who want to quit, or who do not want to use tobacco, and provide tools and support necessary to become, or stay, tobacco-free during deployment.
An initiative to create a tobacco counter-marketing video competition. This video competition would target and empower military members and members of the community to submit entries, and vote on the most popular video. The winning tobacco prevention video would be broadcast at military communities across the nation.
An initiative to motivate and inspire individuals to achieve tobacco-free living through competition and incentives.
An initiative to create a patient registry to facilitate a more comprehensive follow-up for people who want to quit using tobacco.
Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and the director of the TRICARE Management Activity, was one of the key leaders who was briefed on the group’s recommendations. In his role, Woodson administers the more-than $50 billion budget of the Military Health System and serves as the principal adviser to the secretary of defense for health issues.
Woodson endorsed each idea, encouraged the team to develop the ideas even further, and urged them to begin the path of implementation.
“We know that tobacco use can be deadly, so we have a moral imperative to save the lives of our service members,” said Woodson. “We must do all we can to preserve the health of the force.”
After three intense days of brainstorming, the participants appreciated Woodson’s endorsement. “We are excited to have senior leaders on board,” said Col. John Oh, chief of health promotion at the Air Force Medical Support Agency. “This endorsement will re-energize our efforts.”