The evidence has gone up in smoke, but some top Pentagon officials are still smoldering over thousands of cartons of cigarettes that were donated to U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in violation of Defense Department policy.

Four or five aircraft pallets of cigarettes -- an estimated 10,000 cartons -- were loaded aboard an Air Force transport plane at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., a few weeks ago and flown to Saudi Arabia, where they were distributed to U.S. troops, according to Pentagon officials.

A four-year-old Defense Department policy aimed at discouraging smoking and drinking among military personnel forbids the distribution of free tobacco or alcohol products "in promotional programs aimed primarily at military personnel."

"Our troops deployed on Operation Desert Shield deserve better than to be exposed to greater risk of disease and death that free cigarettes would promote," Enrique Mendez Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, wrote after learning of the donation.

"Smoking undermines readiness on the battlefield, and is one of the leading preventable causes of disease and death among military personnel," Mendez said. "Free distribution of tobacco products would seriously jeopardize the progress we have made in reducing tobacco usage by our troops."

A Pentagon spokesman said military officials at Pope Air Force Base apparently were unaware of the ban when they loaded the cigarettes, which had been donated by Philip J. Morris and R.J. Reynolds tobacco companies. The cigarettes were sent to Saudi Arabia along with numerous other donated items.

Officials discovered the policy violation earlier this week when a newspaper story published a list of companies that had donated items to U.S. troops. The Pentagon has since stopped another planned cigarette donation by another tobacco company, a spokesman said.