Some American Legion posts taking a hard stance on smoking

It’s a typical weekday afternoon and about half a dozen men sit around the bar in the social quarters at American Legion Post 160 in Smyrna.

As they enter the dark room, visitors are immediately hit with the pungent, lingering odor of years of cigarette smoke.

“It gets in your clothes,” said Hal Reeves, the 81-year-old former post commander and Korean War veteran, who took his last puff in 1963. “My wife used to say, ‘Don’t come in the house smelling like that.’ I would take off my outer clothes as soon as I came in the door and put them in the washing machine.”

It wasn’t just the smell. Just a short time in the bar area would send Reeves scurrying for fresh air. “As an officer, it was my obligation to be there,” he said. “But I would get a sinus headache. A lot of times I had to step out to clear my head.”

Not anymore.

Reeves and other members of Post 160, which has more than 800 members, recently voted 44-16 to ban smoking in its building, becoming part of a small but what many expect to be a growing number of American Legion posts with lounge areas in metro Atlanta that are going smoke-free. A post in Alpharetta recently voted to go smoke-free, and another in Cobb County is considering similar steps.

“Absolutely,” more will follow, said Lynne Rollins, the state commander of the American Legion, which has 241 posts in Georgia. “Older members, those World War II veterans who are still with us and the Vietnam veterans, have developed health problems from smoking. … We have other veterans who are coming off of active duty now who are more health-conscious.”

For decades, smoking and the military had a close relationship. For Reeves, smoking became a way to relax, reduce boredom and relieve the stress while in active service.

Despite the shared history of tobacco and the armed services, the bans have produced few — if any — downsides, Rollins said. She believes traffic has actually increased as more nonsmokers come into the posts.

The health consequences of smoking moved to the forefront in 1964 with the release of the landmark U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. Tobacco use is considered the most preventable causes of death and disease in the United States.

Studies now show that people who stop smoking significantly reduce their risk of suffering from smoke-related diseases such as cancer and various respiratory conditions. The benefits extend to people who are exposed to secondhand smoke as well.

According to the American Lung Association’s website, more than 440,000 U.S. residents die of smoking-related diseases each year, including babies born prematurely as a result of prenatal maternal smoking and victims of secondhand exposure.

At Post 160, some areas were already designated as nonsmoking before the total ban. Others, such as the bar area, were not. The “stench” was so bad, Commander Harold Watkins said, that nonsmokers didn’t stay long. He said he tired of fielding complaints from members who didn’t want to bring their families around the post because of the smoke or because they had had health issues.

“It’s just part of the evolution of what is going on in this country,” said Watkins, who smokes cigars. “There are a lot less smokers. If you need to smoke, you can do it in your car or in your home — not in front of everybody else.”

Not everyone, however, is pleased with Post 160’s ban.

“I feel like we’re having our rights taken away,” said Dennis Chambers, 65, who started smoking when he joined the U.S. Army in 1967. “It’s not a choice at all.”

Having an outside smoking area doesn’t appease him. “It’s cold out there or it’s wet out there or it’s hot out there,” he said.

It’s significant that such changes are happening in such a prominent veterans organization as the American Legion, said Thomas Glynn, the director of cancer science and trends for the American Cancer Society. “It’s a bold step, but also a step that’s going to be positive for the health of veterans.”

Smoking can affect a serviceman or servicewoman’s readiness by reducing physical fitness and causing other health problems that cost more to treat.

Reeves and other said they didn’t start smoking until they joined the military. Reeves was drafted at 19, and he soon started smoking cigarettes “because they were cheap and, as a matter of fact, they were free.”

Dave Dobbins, the chief operating officer of Washington, D.C.-based Legacy, a national public health foundation, said “there has always been a pretty strong link between tobacco and the military.”

“That goes back to World War II, when cigarettes were included as part of the rations and were sold at the commissary, often at a cheaper rate,” said Dobbins, whose organizations works to keep young people from smoking and help all smokers quit. “The tobacco industry has always seen soldiers as one of their biggest markets.”

The armed services stopped including cigarettes in rations in the 1970s, health experts say. But the tie between military personnel and tobacco persisted.

Between 2007 and 2010, 29 percent of veterans reported being current cigarette smokers, compared with 24 percent of those who had not served in the military, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, there are programs to help veterans quit.

Mark D. Ackerman runs the Nicotine Addiction Treatment Program at the Atlanta Department of Veterans Affairs, which sees about 1,200 veterans annually.

It can be frustrating for older veterans who once received cigarettes in their rations and who now know the risk of smoking.

“Many veterans who entered the military years ago were not aware that smoking was harmful to their health,” said Ackerman, a clinical psychologist. “Since tobacco is extremely addictive, it is frustrating and difficult for them to quit smoking without professional assistance. The Atlanta VA offers a comprehensive and multidisciplinary Quit Smoking Program, which includes both medication and behavioral treatment. The program has had a high level of success among veterans who complete it.”