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Lawmakers at odds over Navy’s proposed ban on tobacco sales

Lawmakers are taking sides in a debate over whether the U.S. Navy should ban tobacco sales on its ships and bases, with one House Republican last week opposing the plan while several Senate Democrats supported it.

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images). (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Navy is considering the restriction as part of a renewed emphasis on the health of sailors and Marines, according to officials. But some members of Congress see the effort as a waste of energy for the department.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on Friday that the plan distracts from the Navy’s focus on “the threats of the future,” including the U.S. military’s pivot toward a focus on the Pacific.

“Having spent time around Marines and sailors through multiple deployments, I believe there are far more immediate priorities for the Navy and Marine Corps, all of which require your leadership and attention,” the Republican said.

Hunter, a former Marine Corps officer who served two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, also raised concerns that the proposed plan would restrict access to legal products and “intrude on the personal decision-making” of Navy personnel.

Taking the opposite position, four Senate Democrats — Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Jack Reed (R.I.), both of whom are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with Dick Durbin (Ill.), Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) — wrote to Mabus supporting the Navy’s proposal.

“The high rate of tobacco use by active-duty personnel is not only harmful to their health, but also costs the federal government significantly in the long term,” the senators wrote.

The Democrats said the Defense Department brings in about $90 million per year in authorized tobacco sales, whereas tobacco-related health expenses and loss of productivity cost about $1.9 billion per year — or 21 times as much, according to a DOD-commissioned study from 2009.

The Navy is not alone in considering changes to its tobacco policies. The entire military is doing so, according to Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

“We know that tobacco use is detrimental to military readiness and harms individual performance,” Wilkinson said in a statement on Monday. She added that the Defense Department plans to “dramatically reduce the use of all tobacco by 2020″ and that the goal will require “aggressive, organization-wide reforms including considering how and where we allow tobacco purchases to be made, as well as the need to consider tobacco-free installations.”

A 2008 Pentagon study found that 30.6 percent of military personnel smoke, compared to 20.6 percent among adults in the general U.S. population. Half of respondents in the DOD survey said they had tried unsuccessfully to quit using cigarettes.

“The Department [of the Navy] should ensure that adequate support is always available to personnel seeking to quit tobacco use, including the existing effort to offer tobacco cessation products and services,” the Democrats wrote.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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