A 1960 submarine smoking ban lasted just three days

Many of us landlubbers were a bit startled by last week's announcement by the Navy of plans to ban smoking on submarines by the end of the year.

Really? You can smoke now on submarines?

Even news anchor Steve Inskeep, in reporting the story on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," sounded a bit incredulous.

"It's hard to believe it took until 2010 to figure this out, but the Navy has decided it's a problem if you smoke on a submarine," Inskeep began his report, before citing the government's new studies proving the health risks of second-hand smoke on subs.

Indeed, people posting to news stories about the smoking ban that appeared around the world reacted with a mixture of surprise and humor.

Some suggested crew members could just step outside to light up. Others worried, now that women will soon be on board, about sailors missing out on a post-coital smoke.

A few wondered: Will commanders now order more trips to the surface?

The Navy said it plans to provide programs to help sailors quit and will lay in a lot of nicotine patches and gum for future deployments.

Still, with official estimates putting the number of submariners who smoke at 40 percent of the service, you have to wonder how well a boatload of detoxing sailors are going to get along.

To get a little perspective on what to expect I poked around in the news archives and found some reporting on a 1960 experimental smoking ban aboard the submarine Triton.

The Triton left New London in Feb. 16, 1960, on what was supposed to be its shakedown cruise but which turned out instead to be a surprise and unprecedented underwater circumnavigation, lasting until April 25.

The Navy put medical researchers on board to learn a little more about the physical and psychological effects of spending such a long time under water in close quarters.

The research included a smoking ban that was supposed to be 10 days long, but ended after just three, when the crew started to get a bit more than cranky.

Of course the decision to abort the study early might have been influenced by the fact that the doctor in charge was also a smoker.

A good account of the smoking ban experiment comes from the submarine's captain, Edward L. Beach Jr., who went on to write an entertaining account of the trip in his 1962 book, "Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton."

Beach, who also wrote the classic World War II submarine novel "Run Silent, Run Deep," exhibits a wry sense of humor in describing his crew's "sufferings." Beach, too, was a smoker.

"Everyone on board was determined to go through with the test in good heart and spirit, but as the dread day for putting out the smoking lamp approached, various reactions were noticeable among crew members," Beach wrote. "The nonsmokers were lording it over the others, and there was an aura of apprehension among the habitual smokers."

The Triton, he noted, had laid in a good supply of candy and chewing gum.

Not long after the test began, Beach said, "overt feelings of hostility" began surfacing and there were also "signs of forced gaiety, with an edge to it."

On April 18, after only three days of deprivation, Beach relit the smoking light himself, by strolling the ship with a lit cigar, blowing smoke into crew members' faces, and asking, "Don't you wish you could do this?"

"It took some 37 seconds for word to get around," Beach said, and the Triton was once again a smoking submarine.

In fact, the smoking light remained lit on all submarines for another 50 years.

The doctor in charge of the 1960 experiment reported three years later to a convention of the Cigar Institute of America, according to The New York Times, that the sailors didn't like having their tobacco taken away.

"When a smoker is forbidden to smoke he just doesn't like it," the doctor reported. "The smokers in the test got irritable, ate too much, had trouble sleeping, and personal relationships began to deteriorate."

Even back then, it seems, the Navy depended on extensive medical research to uncover the obvious.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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