Military personnel would rather smoke than gain weight

November 02, 2001

Overweight military personnel would rather keep smoking than risk gaining weight if faced with a choice between these two health risks, according to a new study.

"Although excess weight constitutes a significant public health problem in the United States, the health and economic consequences of tobacco use are substantially greater," says lead study author Capt. Christine R. Russ, Ph.D., of the Air Force Medical Operations Agency at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas. "In the face of greater health risks and organizational costs related to smoking, military policies favor enforcement of weight standards."

Health problems due to smoking annually account for 430,000 deaths in the United States. Although smoking prevalence has dropped over the past 20 years among military personnel, the decline seems to have leveled off, according to a Department of Defense survey.

The study, published in the November issue of American Journal of Health Promotion, notes that "no official negative consequences exist for tobacco use within the military. In contrast, individuals can receive substantial reprimands for excess weight" and face the possibility of involuntary discharge.

The study shows that active-duty personnel, who have to conform to maximum weight limits, were more likely to be concerned about weight gain while participating in a smoking-cessation program than non-active-duty participants. The active-duty participants were also four times more likely to anticipate smoking relapse if they foresee a five-to-10-pound weight gain.

The study included 252 participants in an eight-week, group-based smoking-cessation program. One-hundred and eight were active-duty military personnel and the other 146 were family members of military personnel or retired military personnel and their families.

Weight gain is common during and after smoking cessation. Quitting smoking is a notoriously difficult goal to achieve, with some studies showing a success rate of less than 10 percent.

As in this and previous studies, weight gain was a bigger concern among women than men. However, in this study, weight gain was the greatest obstacle to quitting among active-duty participants who were already close to the Air Force's maximum allowable weight. They were seven times more likely than the others to say they would start smoking again if they gained five to 10 pounds.

"Concern about post-cessation weight gain could be a potent deterrent to successful, long-term smoking cessation among active-duty members," the authors say. "Given the inherent difficulty in achieving smoking cessation, it would be in the best interest of the U.S. Air Force, as well as the other armed services, to remove as many potential barriers to smoking cessation as possible."

They suggest that overweight smokers may want to focus on one health risk at a time, first giving up smoking, without worrying about the extra weight until they have successfully quit.
The American Journal of Health Promotion is a bimonthly peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the field of health promotion. For information about the journal call (248) 682-0707 or visit the journal's website at

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, (202) 387-2829.

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