The USS Michigan got a jump on a dozen other Kitsap-based submarines, and its sailors are breathing easier because of it.
The Blue Crew of SSGN-727 went smokeless at 7:27 a.m. on July 27, matching the boat’s hull number. By midnight on Dec. 31, the rest of the Navy’s subs must follow suit.
On April 8, the Navy said it would ban smoking cigarettes below decks on submarines to protect sailors from secondhand smoke. The move was in response to a 2009 study by the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory that showed the ill effects on nonsmokers.
The Michigan was the first boat from Naval Base Kitsap, and possibly in the Navy, to kick the habit, said Submarine Group 9 spokesman Lt. Ed Early. It wasn’t alone, however.
As of Oct. 22, 21 of the Navy’s 71 submarines had gone completely smoke-free, Early said. Efforts to get an updated number from Submarine Force in Norfolk, Va., last week proved unsuccessful.
There are about 3,500 submariners based at Naval Base Kitsap. If 31 percent of sailors smoke, as a 2008 Department of Defense survey contends, then nearly 1,100 local submariners will have to either quit or subdue the urge to smoke while they’re on patrol.
Submariners can still use smokeless tobacco, though the Navy highly discourages it. Ten percent of them do, according to the survey. They can take cigarettes onto the boat and smoke them pier side or while on liberty. If they get caught sneaking a puff on board, the commanding officer will determine the proper response.
“The goal is to educate smokers about the effect on smokers, and if they want to quit, to help them quit,” Early said.
Sailors have had seven months to quit, and a lot of help. The Navy provided smoking-cessation classes, counseling, and nicotine patches and gum at Naval Hospital Bremerton, its Bangor health clinic and a substance-abuse rehabilitation center at Bangor, said hospital spokesman Doug Stutz.
“They have qualified counselors who have been accredited and have a thorough knowledge of how to deal with anybody who wants to undertake the process of weaning away from the nicotine habit,” Stutz said.
That includes spouses and girlfriends, Stutz said.
The hospital is working with Submarine Group 9 leadership and submarine commanding officers so the crews have ample resources to kick the habit, Stutz said. Each crew has an independent duty corpsman who oversees the program on the sub and is responsible for the gum and patches.
A week from the deadline, all submarines should be close to smokeless, though there might be some stragglers, Early said.
“We’ve put the word out to all of our boats. We expect when Jan. 1 rolls around, the submarine force will be absolutely smoke-free,” he said.
Anybody with access to the naval hospital can get help to quit smoking, not just submariners, Stutz said. Call (800) 422-1383.