If the Pentagon accepts new calls for a ban on tobacco products in the military, then the image of a tired soldier relaxing by lighting up could become anecdotal.
An Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, requested by the Pentagon and the Veterans Association, says the adoption of a tobacco-free policy could make the military "virtually tobacco-free within 20 years."
The report found the proportion of smokers in the US armed forces is higher than in the civilian population, with around 32 percent of soldiers using tobacco products, compared with 20 percent of civilians.
Military personnel on deployments were twice as likely to be smokers than home-based counterparts, the report said, adding that the Defense Department spent 564 million dollars in 2006 treating tobacco-related illness in the military.
"There are numerous reasons why the military would support the goal of becoming tobacco-free, such as improved military readiness, better health of force, and decreased health-care costs," the report said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to offer specific comment on the study's findings, but said the Department of Defense (DoD) has long recognized the health effects of smoking.
"We're not behind the curve at all," he said. "The fact of the matter is the federal government and the US military were the first to go smoke-free in their office buildings."
But the study criticized the military for the "contradiction" between its expressed support for a smoke-free military and its continued subsidies of tobacco products sold on military bases.
"The committee believes that DoD should not be selling products that are known to impair military readiness and health, and it recommends that these sales be eliminated on all military installations," the report says.
But the study acknowledged the difficulty of phasing out smoking, noting that the habit has "long been associated with the image of a tough, fearless warrior."
It suggested the Pentagon consider gradually phasing out the subsidized sale of tobacco products on US military bases and that it implement a series of tough anti-smoking measures, starting with new recruits.
The report suggests entrance to military training programs should be contingent on officers giving up tobacco use during their active-military careers.
"Shortly after or simultaneously... a similar plan could be established for new enlistees," the report said.
If the ban was gradually extended to include all enlistees, backed by extensive smoking cessation assistance, the study predicts the military would be tobacco-free within 20 years, or even sooner.
Pentagon spokesman Cynthia Smith told AFP that the department "supports the goal of a tobacco-free military, and believes it is achievable through the development and execution of a comprehensive plan as recommended by the IOM report."
"We look forward to using the committee's findings and recommendations as we address this challenging health and readiness issue," she said.