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Friday, March 28, 2003  
Should POWs light up?

So many people can shed more light on the Geneva Conventions than I that I'm not even going to try, except for discussing a little known provision I don't know whether to be amused or bemused by.

The Geneva Conventions are four related 1949 treaties signed by about 190 nations, including the United States, Iraq and Afghanistan. The third convention, on prisoners of war, is being closely scrutinized this week as images of American prisoners being questioned are broadcast around the world. It sets out detailed rules, prohibiting torture, approving "sports and games" and requiring that tobacco be permitted and sold at local market prices.

If I interpret the last clause correctly, miserable prisoners of war, being held in jail cells at best while bombs from their own side fall outside and hatred from the enemy bombards them inside must be allowed to smoke. I guess the provision is some kind of consolation prize. Or perhaps it is a vestige from the old days when soldiers were macho men who smoked, drank and loved the smell of napalm in the morning.

I can't help but wonder how the half-century old provision fits in with the lives of contemporary soldiers, most of whom are in support positions, some of whom are women and a majority of whom are not smokers because of the reduction of smoking in American society.

In 2000, the military reported that 34 percent of the nation's 1.4 million service members smoked — down from previous decades, but not enough to satisfy the Defense Department, which was spending $930 million per year on healthcare for smoking-related illnesses and lost productivity.

I believe it is safe to assume the proportion of smokers has dropped more since.

The Geneva Conventions requirement in regard to smoking raises several different kinds of questions. Psychological: Given a choice of diversions, would the captured troops prefer something other than a Marlboro? Will some of them begin smoking while POWs just because cigarettes, in keeping with the Geneva Conventions, are made available? Legal: Should an unhealthy form of diversion be made available? If they begin smoking while in the armed forces and prisoners of war, will the government be responsible for their smoking-related illnesses down the road, when they are civilians? Social: Will this requirement provide an opportunity for American tobacco companies to raise their profiles and goodwill toward them by shipping free cigarettes to Iraq for prisoners of war? (And, no, I don't believe the tobacco industry is above such self-serving behavior.) Will that, in turn, encourage civilians to smoke?

The American military has considered abolishing smoking altogether, but gradually. Experts are concerned about both the short-term and long-term effects of smoking on soldiers.

Besides being tied to causing long-term diseases, such as emphysema and lung cancer, smoking degrades soldier readiness, said Brig. Gen. Patrick D. Sculley, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

. . .The Army is now very concerned about smoking's short-term effects on soldiers, Sculley said, noting: "Smoking is a readiness issue."

"We think of endurance as being less among smokers. Smokers don't heal as well [compared to non-smokers] if they're injured. Smokers have decreased night vision. Soldiers who smoke also are more susceptible to cold injury," he added.

The military began its smoking cessation efforts at home -- on its bases.

A more than eight-year Department of Defense effort to outlaw cigarette smoking in public buildings reached a final phase on Dec. 7 [2002] as a three-year grace period ended for recreational facilities, including base bars, bowling alleys, and golf course clubhouses, to go smoke-free.

However, housing, including barracks, is excluded from the ban. That would include temporary housing in the field. So, arguably, the prisoners of war will just be doing in their cells what they could have done in their tents. But, most of them would not have smoked in their tents and may be tempted to do so as captives.

I know this is a lot of thought to give to a 'minor' provision of the Geneva Conventions, but I find the 'smoking break from war' rule intriguing.

Note: I have republished this item at the watch.

7:20 PM