CDC: Almost 30% of US Vets Use Tobacco

ad from the CDC that shows soldiers in the field with the text "You Can Overcome This Challenge, Too" and provides a phone number for help quitting tobacco (1-800-QUIT-NOW)

Almost 1 in 3 US military veterans smokes cigarettes or uses some other form of tobacco, according to a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Overall, the use of tobacco is higher among vets than non-vets across every age group except men ages 50 and older.

The CDC used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to look at tobacco use during 2010 – 2015. The report was published January 12 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

 “Lowering the rate of smoking among veterans is a public health and mental health priority among the Veterans Health Administration. said Kim Hamlett-Berry, PhD, Program Director of VA Tobacco & Health Policy.

Cigarettes were the most commonly used tobacco product among vets: 21.6% of vets reported smoking. This was followed by cigars, including cigarillos and little cigars (6.2%), smokeless tobacco (5.2%), roll-your-own tobacco (3%), and pipes (1.5%). In addition, 7% of vets use more than one tobacco product. Data were not available for newer tobacco products such as hookah and electronic cigarettes.

Other key findings:

  • Young adult vets aged 18-25 are the most likely to use any form of tobacco, at 56%. That’s compared with 52.7% of those aged 26-34 years, 43.2% of those aged 35-49 years, and 23.8% of those aged 50 years and older.
  • Vets who have health insurance were less likely to use any tobacco product. About 60% of uninsured vets smoked compared with 27.3% of insured vets.
  • Lower-income vets are much more likely than those with higher incomes to use any tobacco product. Of those living at or below the federal poverty threshold, 53.7% used any tobacco product, compared with 38.7% of those living at up to twice the federal poverty threshold, and 25.2% of those living at more than twice the federal poverty threshold.
  • Of vets with less than a high school education, 37.9% used any tobacco product, compared with 33.9% of those with a high school education, 33.6% of those with some college education, and 17.2% of those with at least an undergraduate college degree.
  • Vets with serious psychological distress were more likely to use tobacco: 48.2% compared with 28.5% who do not have serious psychological distress.
  • During 2010, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) spent an estimated $2.7 billion on smoking-related health care.

What can be done

According to the report, the military and veteran population needs access to methods, shown by evidence to be effective, to avoid using tobacco in the first place, or to quit. More than one-third of active duty military who smoke, started smoking after enlisting. Possible reasons include stress, peer pressure, and easy access to cheap tobacco products.

  • Tobacco-control strategies could include:
  • Gearing messages about quitting tobacco toward current military personnel and vets
  • Setting tobacco-free policies at military installations and Veterans Affairs medical facilities
  • Increasing the minimum age required to buy tobacco products on military bases to 21
  • Ending tobacco product discounts through military retailers

Hamlett-Berry says a chronic care approach is needed because smoking and tobacco use are highly addictive and require multiple quitting attempts even for those who are highly motivated. In addition to offering care, she says the VHA is building and supporting a network of clinicians who have access to trainings and up-to-date information on evidence-based treatment.

“We serve an incredibly diverse population,” said Hamlett-Berry. “With any system as large as ours, it’s important to target health messages to be relevant to various populations who use tobacco and want to quit, so we can be sure we’re being responsive to specific needs.”

The American Cancer Society is collaborating with the VHA to provide information to VA facilities and promote programs and events that have the goal of reducing tobacco use among vets and among people with behavioral health problems. The ACS has also launched a national initiative with partners from the public health, healthcare and behavioral health sectors, including the VHA, to help smokers with mental illness or substance use disorders successfully quit.

The American Cancer Society’s advocacy affiliate, Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) is working to help get federal legislation passed that would end a requirement for all VA facilities to provide smoking areas, which would allow VA facilities to implement smoke-free policies.

Get help quitting

Vets who receive health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have access to treatment, medications, and counseling:

Non-vets and vets not enrolled in VA health care can call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) to speak with a quit-line counselor or visit smokefree.gov. Active duty and retired service members and their families can access quit services through their TRICARE coverage and Department of Defense programs.

The CDC’s Tips From Former Smokers® campaign features real stories to motivate smokers to quit, including military service members and vets who live with smoking-related health problems.

Call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 for more tips and resources for quitting tobacco.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Tobacco Product Use Among Military Veterans — United States, 2010–2015. Published January 12, 2018 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. First author Satomi Odani, MPH, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Ga.


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