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Researchers study factors influencing Airmen’s tobacco use during technical training

Despite strict policies on tobacco use and awareness of the risks to health, readiness, and performance, some Airmen continue to use tobacco products. Retired Col. G. Wayne Talcott, consultant, Chief of Air Force Health Promotions at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas and director, Military Population Health Program at the University of Virginia, and his team are working to understand what factors contribute to Airmen’s tobacco use and improve current tobacco cessation efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Erica Crossen)

Despite strict policies on tobacco use and awareness of the risks to health, readiness, and performance, some Airmen continue to use tobacco products. Retired Col. G. Wayne Talcott, consultant, Chief of Air Force Health Promotions at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas and director, Military Population Health Program at the University of Virginia, and his team are working to understand what factors contribute to Airmen’s tobacco use and improve current tobacco cessation efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Erica Crossen)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- The Air Force strictly regulates tobacco use during basic and technical training, but some Airmen still use it. Air Force researchers are working with the University of Virginia to uncover why Airmen use tobacco.

Retired Air Force Col. G. Wayne Talcott, consultant, Chief of Air Force Health Promotions at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and director, Military Population Health Program at UVA, and Dr. Melissa Little, deputy director, Military Population Health, are researching why young, enlisted Airmen continue to use tobacco despite knowing the risks and impact on readiness and performance.

“Around 28 percent of Airmen come into the Air Force already using tobacco,” said Talcott. “Tobacco use isn’t allowed during basic and technical training, so they are essentially forced to quit all through basic training and for the first four weeks of technical training, bringing the total of tobacco-free weeks to 12.”

The problem, says Talcott, is that more than half of that 28 percent go back to using tobacco, even though the Air Force has some of the strictest tobacco control policies. Talcott and his team have also found that around 20 percent of new Airmen who have never used tobacco start using after joining.

“Those numbers are high,” said Talcott. “What is really interesting is that most of those who initiate or re-initiate tobacco use start during technical training. We want to know why.”

To answer this question, Talcott and his team received a five-year grant in May of this year from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study what factors lead Airmen to use tobacco products during technical training.

“While interventions and policies discourage tobacco use, there is still an uptake,” said Talcott. “We think that the unique military environment may make it easier for Airmen to use tobacco. Understanding this could help inform tobacco cessation programs.”

Talcott and his team are examining what they call the “built environment” where they look at the physical environment, cost environment and human environment that contribute to Airmen tobacco use. Some of the environmental factors they are looking into are socialization at smoke pits, availability and cost of products off base, and the impact of leadership.

“Socializing at the smoke pits has an impact on tobacco use since it is one of the easier ways to for Airmen coming into technical training to meet each other,” said Little. “Before you know it, they end up addicted.”

Talcott’s team is also looking at the impact of cost and availability of tobacco products that could contribute to Airmen tobacco use.

“We are assessing the pricing and availability of tobacco products off base,” said Little. “In another study we found that the density of tobacco retailers just off military bases is three times the national average.”

Since new Airmen learn everything about the Air Force and what it means to be an Airman from their leadership, Talcott’s team is also considering this as a human factor.

“We want to look at what messages Airmen get from their leadership,” said Little. “We know those messages really matter to young Airmen. We will interview leaders, commanders, and technical training instructors to get an idea of Airmen’s perceptions and attitudes toward tobacco use.”

The researchers have already begun collecting data, which will continue until 2022. They anticipate the results of the study will lead to improvements in tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

“Ultimately, we would like to see a training environment, where its leadership, the physical environment, or the cost environment, make it easier for Airmen to make healthier choices when it comes to tobacco use,” said Talcott.
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