byy Tom Philpott: PNT columnist
Recruits who enter service as heavy cigarette smokers are nearly twice as likely as non-smokers to be separated early, mostly due to “substandard behavior,’’ according to new research aimed at easing the U.S. military’s disturbingly high attrition rate.
For all its achievements over three decades, the volunteer military has had one chronic problem: an alarming washout rate. A third of all new entrants fail to complete initial service obligations, driving up recruiting and training costs.
The services long have used only two yardsticks to measure recruit quality: entrance test scores and a high school diploma. For example, even as the Army has failed in recent months to meet recruiting targets, it refuses to accept more than 10 percent of its recruits from applicants who dropped out of high school but passed a General Educational Development (GED) test.
Now it appears pre-service smoking habits could well be the equal of a diploma for predicting if a recruit will succeed in service, said Dr. Eli S. Flyer, a former senior manpower analyst with the Defense Department.
Flyer and Dr. Mark Eitelberg, a professor at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif., recently studied first-term attrition among 6,950 Navy recruits who entered service from February through May 2001. The recruits had filled out a biographical questionnaire, detailing any past experiences with smoking, truancy, sleeping difficulties, discipline problems in school, alcohol and marijuana usage and other pre-service behaviors.
Among recruits who identified themselves as heavy smokers, saying they consumed a pack or more a day, 50 percent failed to complete their enlistment. Among light smokers, those smoking less than a pack daily, 37 percent left service early. Non-smokers had an attrition rate of 27 percent.
“High school misbehavior, criminal offenses, drug use, psychological difficulties and authority-related problems were all more prevalent among recruits with a smoking history than among non-smokers,’’ the researchers concluded.
In an interview, Flyer said earlier military studies had established a link between smoking and attrition. The value of the new study is in explaining why: because youths who smoke have a greater propensity to misbehave and to reject authority, thus raising the odds of failure in service.
Of the recruits studied, 16 percent reported being heavy smokers, 32 percent light smokers and 52 percent non-smokers. Heavy smokers were three times more likely than non-smokers to have a record of truancy, multiple suspensions from high school and non-traffic-related legal offenses. Even if they are high school graduates, heavy smokers still have a higher incidence of misbehavior than non-smokers with diplomas.
“The characteristics that go along with dropping out of school are the characteristics associated with being a youth smoker,’’ Flyer said. Attrition among recruits who are both heavy smokers and high school dropouts is 75 percent.
There is significance too in how early teens begin to smoke, Flyer said. The earlier they begin, the less successful they are likely to be in service. That pattern also holds true for tattoos and body piercing, he said.
Smoking as a predictor of success in the military is less effective if the habit began in service. In that case, smoking is more likely a consequence of job stress or of mimicking peers rather than resisting authority.
“That’s a very different bird than a pre-service smoker,’’ Flyer said.
While a policy to recruit only non-smokers would lower attrition, Flyer said he believes it would not be as effective as identifying youth who smoked heavily at some time. That’s because the characteristics that lead them to become heavy smokers don’t disappear when they stop smoking.
The Navy recruiting command funded the study but Flyer said he doesn’t expect to see the results used anytime soon to tighten enlistment standards. The recruiting community historically has resisted imposing any new hurdles for recruit volunteers to clear.
But Flyer said smoking histories and other biographical screening techniques could be useful if the services need to expand their pool of prospective recruits to get sufficient volunteers — for example, if they begin to accept more GED applicants and other youth with non-traditional school credentials rather than diplomas.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: