Vaping now appears to be more common in the military than smoking regular cigarettes.

The rate of smoking among military service members has plummeted in recent years and now appears to be lower than the general civilian population at large, according to an analysis of the most recent survey of troops’ regarding their health-related behaviors.

Across the service branches, 7.4 percent of service members smoked cigarettes daily in 2015, compared with 12.9 percent of adults in the general population, according to the results of the most recent Defense Department Health-Related Behaviors Survey of Active-Duty Service Members.

And the number of troops who are occasional smokers (smoked in the last month) dropped by nearly half since 2011 — down from 24 percent to 13.9 percent.

Yet the picture looks very different for electronic cigarettes: 11.1 percent of service members said they were daily e-cigarette users, and 12.4 percent had vaped within the last month.

In the junior enlisted ranks, nearly 20 percent are current e-cigarette smokers.

The Marine Corps has the highest percentage of those vaping among the service branches, at 16.1 percent.

Next in line is the Navy with 14.5 percent, despite far-reaching restrictions on e-cigarettes imposed by the Navy a couple years ago.

About 11.2 percent of Army soldiers said they regularly use e-cigs, while 10.5 percent of airmen vape, followed by Coast Guardsmen at 9.3 percent.

The latest Pentagon health survey shows dramatic changes on how troops are consuming nicotine. Yet that data is from 2015. A new version of the health-related behaviors survey is now being fielded; for those active-duty members invited to take the survey, it remains open until Feb. 28.

The rise of e-cigarette use among troops occurred quickly. The 2015 data shows a five-fold increase in service members who said they have tried vaping compared with 2011.

The researchers noted that although the health effects of e-cigarettes are not yet known, they contain chemicals that may cause harm to users and those exposed to secondhand vapors.

And some military officials believe they can pose a safety hazard based on reports that the batteries can explode.

Defense health and service officials have been distributing educational materials about the negative effects of e-cigarettes for several years, along with information about the dangers of tobacco use, and tips for quitting. They’ve emphasized that there’s no proof that e-cigarettes will help people quit tobacco long-term. In their May 2018 “Quit Brief” to the field, officials noted that e-cigarettes are not an approved way to quit tobacco use. Recent studies show that use of e-cigarettes by non-smoking young adults can lead to cigarette smoking, they noted, and most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive.

Sales in military stores

Defense officials have increased the prices of tobacco in military stores as part of a broader effort to encourage troops to quit.

Sales of traditional tobacco on military bases have fallen. In the Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores, sales decreased by nearly half from 2011 to 2017, from 68 million units to 37 million units.

Marine Corps exchanges showed a similar decline — down from 5.5 million in 2011 to 2.5 million in 2017. Navy exchange stores are selling about one-third less tobacco products, down from 15 million in 2011 to 10 million in 2017.

The trends for e-cigarette sales vary among the military exchanges, which started selling the products in 2012 or 2013. Like the vaping trend cited in the 2015 health survey, sales of e-cigarettes at exchanges on Army, Air Force and Navy bases increased steadily through 2015 or 2016. But the sales have decreased since then.

Marine Corps exchanges had a different trend line, with the number of e-cigarette units decreasing through 2016, then starting to jump — by 38 percent in 2017, to 30,163 units. In the first 11 months of the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Feb. 2, sales of e-cigs nearly doubled to 57,466 units at Marine exchanges.

Sales of e-cigarettes began in AAFES stores in 2012, and grew to 272,705 units by 2016. E-cigarette sales decreased since then, down by 9 percent in 2017, and projected to be down another 23 percent for 2018.

E-cigarette sales started in 2013 at Navy Exchanges and hit their peak in 2015 at 45,458 units. Sales decreased by nearly half, to 24,541 units, in 2017. But sales of e-cigs were trending up in 2018 in the Navy stores — 25,256 units by November.

E-cigarettes aren’t sold in commissaries.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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