Life aboard a submarine may soon get a little harder to take for thousands of sailors.
The Navy announced today a ban on smoking aboard submarines while they are deployed below the surface after medical testing showed non-smokers suffered effects of second-hand smoke. It will take effect by Dec. 31, 2010.
The new policy could chip away at the image of the hardened sailor who lights up after a hard day at sea, a portrayal made uber-cool by World War II-era movies.
As with other branches of the military, smoking has long been a staple of Navy culture. For decades, cigarettes were even included in the emergency rations stored in lifeboats alongside food and water.
Lt. Cmdr. Mark Jones of the Commander Naval Submarine Forces out of Norfolk, Va., said about 40 percent of the submarine sailors are smokers.
Cigarettes, he confirmed, are no longer provided as part of sailors' survival gear.
"In a stress-filled environment that a submarine is, that's going to be a big change for smokers," said retired Master Chief John Carcioppolo, now the commander of the U.S. Submarine Veterans at the Groton, Conn., base.
Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Auel was more blunt, telling Stars and Stripes, "That will be a real testy sub when it gets underway."
Carcioppolo spent 22 years on a submarine as a non-smoker. While he was always able to avoid cigarette smoke below decks, he applauded the Navy.
"I think it's a good thing," he said. "It's a closed environment."
Smoking would still be allowed above decks when the sub is on the surface, he said, but they typically pack out for 60 days at a time, sometimes longer, leaving smokers without an opportunity to light up for months at a stretch.
"Really the only reason they do need to come up is to replenish food stocks," Jones said.
Currently, smoking areas on submarines are designated at the discretion of the sub commanders. But after the surgeon general's 2006 report about the negative effects of second-hand smoke, the Navy decided to commission its own study.
Last year, Jones said, the Navy ran medical tests on non-smoking sailors aboard nine submarines.
"We're reviewing the findings right now, but there are some exposure levels," Jones said.
Dr. John Spangler, professor and director of tobacco intervention programs at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, said he wasn't surprised non-smoking submarine sailors showed medical effects of their colleagues' cigarettes.
"Generally, ventilation systems are not effective in getting second-hand smoke out of the environment," Spangler said, citing increased risk for respiratory infections, heart attack and cancer as side effects.
And in a space like a submarine, he said, non-smokers could also be affected by what doctors are calling "third-hand smoke" in the form of particulate dust that settles on the clothing of smokers.
"In a tight environment like that, that dust will build up over time and have no place to go," he said.
Spangler said it could take up to three months for the sailors to fully quit smoking.
"Smoking is a very difficult habit to quit. I don't think many people appreciate that," he said. "I would hope that the Navy would be sympathetic to those that are really struggling."
Jones said the Navy would continue to provide smoking cessation assistance, including nicotine patches and gum.
This is the Navy's second major policy change this year. In February, Navy officials announced they had lifted the ban on female submarine crew members.
The ban is expected to be formally lifted at the end of the congressional comment period in about two weeks.