During the Vietnam War, the U.S. government tucked miniature packs of cigarettes into boxed meals for combat soldiers and dropped cartons of cigarettes by helicopter to troops on long-range reconnaissance missions in the jungle.

About 30 years later, the government has decided those soldiers "smoked on government time" and has prohibited them from receiving disability payments if they developed lung cancer, emphysema or other diseases from smoking.A law banning disability pay for ailments tied to tobacco use was added as an amendment to the 800-page Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century. The bill was signed by President Clinton in June.

The Department of Veterans Affairs requested the law, which amends federal statutes governing veteran benefits.

"The VA believes veterans' compensation benefits were designed to assist veterans who become ill or are injured in service to their country," said Ozzie Garza, a VA spokesman. "It goes beyond the government's responsibility to pay compensation for veterans just because they smoked on government time."

Michael Blecker, executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco veterans' rights group, says it is ironic that the government has decided to deny smoking disability claims given its role as a purveyor of cigarettes.

Blecker, who served two years in Vietnam, says the military tucked tiny cigarette packs in every C-ration box, which contained the canned meals soldiers ate in the field.

"In the packet with the napkins there would always be a package of four cigarettes - Newports, Chesterfields, Lucky Strikes, Winstons, Pall Malls or another one of the brands of the time," he said.

Blecker says cartons of cigarettes were also dropped by helicopter to soldiers on long-range reconnaissance missions.

"If you were 18 or 19 years old, you could pick up a habit big time," said Blecker, who started smoking in Vietnam and quit several years later. "They were free in the field, and back in the PX they were very, very cheap."

The military discontinued the practice in 1975, eight years after the U.S. surgeon general issued a report saying smoking was the principal cause of lung cancer.

"Sure, a lot of veterans have (medical) conditions as a result of that practice," said VA spokesman Ken McKinnon, "but the VA's position is that the government cannot be held responsible for all the sins of smoking."

Richard Daynard, chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, a public health advocacy group at Northeastern University in Boston, says the ban on smoking claims is an "ugly response" by a government unwilling to take responsibility for its actions.

"It's ironic, it's unfair and, to understate the situation, it's in very bad grace for the government to say: `We've tracked this (smoking and health) problem down pretty far, and we're certainly going to hold the tobacco industry responsible - but when it comes to our own responsibility, forget it,' " he said.

Tobacco industry documents made public in recent years have shown that cigarette companies knew 30 years ago that nicotine was addictive and that smoking caused numerous health problems.