Dr Simon Ewing-Jarvie and Hon Heather Roy

First Published: 1 June 2017

soldier smoking

According to local and international research, 12-18% of Kiwis who serve overseas will suffer from post-traumatic stress injury (also known as PTSD). Our understanding is that wider mental health issues are also significant for the modern serviceperson, regardless of whether they have deployed or not.

So what is the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) doing about this? On 31 May, the NZDF announced its leading health priority is to become smoke-free by 2020. This was news to the vast majority of soldiers, sailors, airmen and women and undoubtedly caused face-palming on the part of the junior commanders who will have to enforce this on a day-to day basis in just two and a half years’ time.

Unsurprisingly, there has been no formal criticism of the announcement with the noted exception of Winston Peters and Ron Mark who hit the nail squarely on the head regarding the government’s hypocrisy and blurred focus of the move. We have decided to speak out because this ill-conceived policy is symptomatic of a much broader problem relating to employment conditions for service personnel. We are not anti-defence – quite the opposite. For many years we have advocated for a stronger, more capable defence force. However, this outcome can only be achieved if the country focusses on the real issues – societal, political, economic, legal and technological as well as the endemic problems within Defence itself. To ignore any of these factors risks a ‘multiply by zero’ result.

The NZDF has been working, for some time, on a cultural shift toward health and wellness. Few would argue that smoking is good for you. However, this latest announcement has thrown the spotlight on a problem which has plagued the Defence establishment for decades – the lack of ‘voice’ for rank and file. Under the Defence Act 1990, the Chief of the Defence Force is both the employer and the advocate for all service personnel. This is an unconscionable arrangement. As early as 1998, researchers were discussing the need for a Defence Force Association to be an independent voice for the thousands of service personnel who, if faced with wrongdoing, could only complain or seek redress through their chain of command – often the same commanders who were the source of the problem. The only other choice was to leave.

Naturally, many claim that a union is untenable in a disciplined military environment. A similar argument was put forward when the NZ Police Association was established in 1936 – although a form of police unionism had existed since 1913. While membership is voluntary, almost all who are eligible belong. The Association has successfully worked to improve the pay and conditions of members, to improve the level of service the Police provides to the public and to comment on law and order issues. Few Kiwis would suggest that the Police Association has not succeeded in advocating strongly for its members, both uniformed and civilian.

If the NZDF rank and file had been asked about health priorities ahead of Wednesday’s smoke-free announcement we believe treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (also known as PTSD) and wider mental illness issues would have been top of their list.

How, then, might this have played out differently were a Defence Force Association in existence? For a start, there would have been engagement with soldiers and the public before any public policy statement was made from behind disingenuous smiles and supercilious grins. The discussions that are playing out today around bases and camps should have been had in advance. Service personnel are now wondering what will happen if they have foreign troops, media or NGO workers, who can smoke, embedded within their units. What happens when they are posted to a large foreign base where smoking is allowed? Non-smokers are feeling bad for their mates. How many more disciplinary proceedings will take place under the new order? Can a service member lose the entitlement to their good conduct medal through repeated smoking offences?

Yesterday’s announcement was a lost opportunity for the NZDF to tackle the hard problem of mental health issues, including PTSI, in favour of a soft win with a smoke-free policy. It highlights the urgent need for defence force personnel to have a voice when decisions are being made that directly affect their employment and wellbeing. The establishment of a Defence Force Association is long overdue.