Smokes for the Boys: A History of Smoking and the Military

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada; also known as Veterans’ Day in the US and Armistice Day in the UK.  We’re going to be down at our local cenotaph when you read this, doing our personal ceremony to honour those who died in defense of our nation.  One of the things we do is to leave offerings for the unquiet ghosts; bully beef, beer or whisky or vodka (whatever we have handy,) and a pack of cigarettes and some pipe tobacco.  We also share in a pipe smoke and possibly a cigar, and we blow the smoke at the cenotaph, as if it were a Voodoo ancestral altar.  We do this because these things were valued and appreciated by the boys (and girls) in service.

Sailors light their pipes from a smoking lamp.

Modern historians often conveniently forget that smoking was very important to the military, and even today, smoking among soldiers is more prevalent than it is among the civilian population, with some disparity between different military branches.  Modern historians attribute this to a campaign by tobacco companies during World War I to distribute free tobacco products to the soldiers, eventually resulting in the inclusion of packs of cigarettes in soldier rations, beginning in 1916 and ending only recently in the late twentieth century. This is painted by modern historians as a massive advertising campaign and insidious plot to hook soldiers and sailors on tobacco products.  But even as late as the 1920s, tobacco was respected for many medicinal qualities and recommended in medicinal texts.  Also, smoking was considered incredibly important to fighting morale, and having been a business-person, I suspect that while a mercenary calculation was part of it (that introducing their products as free samples would build a future customer base and win sympathy among the pro-war populace), I suspect there was also a genuine intention of improving morale among the troops and comforting them in hard times.

Before the Twentieth Century

Raleigh’s first pipe in England by Frederick William Fairholt (1858). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This probably significantly increased the use of tobacco in military circles, but it didn’t, by any means, start the tradition.  This document, produced by the smoking cessation activist group ASH, lays out a timeline of significant events in the history of tobacco use.  It seems that tobacco has been a tradition in the Portuguese Navy since Rodrigo de Jerez, who was part of Columbus’ crew, brought it back to Europe; and part of the British Royal Navy since Sir Francis Drake discovered it in 1572; then part of the English Army since it was introduced to Sir Walter Raleigh..  Because smoking on ships was a fire hazard, which can be especially dangerous to a ship at sea, but, because it was believed to be good for morale, British sailors kept a smoking lamp in a centralized location and it was the only authorized light aboard.  It also kept flame away from magazines and other storage areas.  Navies are creatures of habit and tradition, and to this day, Navy ships still announce that “the smoking lamp is lit in all authorized places” to indicate that it is now okay to smoke in the designated smoking areas.  Certainly the corncob pipe, often turned upside-down to keep the rain out of it, is an iconic image that we associate with sailors even to this day; and the “military mount” was invented because they could be removed while hot and were less breakable for cavalry soldiers in the field.

Queen Elizabeth the First was convinced to try smoking by Sir Walter Raleigh; but King James the First disliked the habit and believed it to be unhealthy, and he instituted the first ever punitive tobacco tax.  His views were largely sneered at by the Royal College of Physicians in his day.

A Cavalier Smoking a Pipe by Theodoor Rombouts (1597 – 1637). Source:

Seville became the center for world cigar production in 1614, and beggars began to roll cigar leavings into paper at about that time.  Snuff became popular among English aristocrats, and therefore, English officers, after Charles II returned from exile in Paris, bringing the French court’s custom with him. In the same year, Virginia, which was still an English colony of course, entered the world tobacco market.  In 1693 the English Parliament banned smoking in the House of Commons.  So the use of tobacco spread throughout the European world.  By 1826 cigar smoking became fashionable in England.  During the Napoleonic Wars it was customary for gentlemen (and therefore, military officers) to share cigars in the evening or at important social functions, like wardroom dinners.

Caricature of Col. Sir Philip W. Chetwode of the 19th Hussars, c. 1910. From Vanity Fair Magazine. Source:

Egyptian soldiers are credited with the invention of the modern cigarette in 1832; and at about the same time, John Player began selling pre-packaged tobacco instead of bulk tobacco. Matches were introduced in 1852, making smoking more convenient.  Then in 1853, British soldiers discovering the cheap and convenient cigarette from their Turkish allies, brought cigarette smoking back to England from the Crimean War.  The first cigarette factory in England was opened by Crimean War vet Robert Gloag.

World War I

A volunteer nurse distributes cigarettes in a VA hospital. Source: Mary Evans Picture Library.

There’s no denying that World War I saw an amazing increase in smoking among soldiers (though perhaps not sailors).  Cigarettes and pipes were among the most requested comforts of all ranks of the troops.  In a volume of The Bystander, one officer was quoted as saying, “If the men can only get a ‘fag’ or a pipe they are content.  They pay no heed to discomfort in the trenches, or on the march in the worst weather.  Even if they are without their rations they won’t complain if ‘fags’ don’t fail.  Some have been reduced to smoking their allowances of tea.  Others have smoked brown paper or leaves of trees.”


Magazine advertisement for a campaign to send smokes to the troops, c. WWI. This image is in the public domain.

Magazines repeatedly printed requests from soldiers for more cigarettes and tobacco, especially through The Queen magazine, which acted as a charity exchange front for sending items to soldiers at the Front.  Smoking in hospitals was encouraged.  Wrote one writer for The Queen who had spent time in the VA hospitals, in regards to a man who had seen all of his comrades killed, “A cigarette seemed to give new life to that man when he was desperately ill in hospital, and one could not help thinking how much more a smoke must have meant to him in the stress and strain of those awful weeks.”  The image of nurses offering cigarettes as a gesture of compassion became one of most iconic images of the First World War.

Advertisement for Smith’s Glasgow pipe tobacco mixture. Source: Mary Evans Picture Library.

In November 1916, members of the V.A.D. distributed 30,000 cigarettes (gifted by their manufacturers, Major, Drapkin and Co.) to soldiers taking part in the Lord Mayor’s procession.  In the same year, tobacco became part of almost every Allied army’s standard rations.  A whole industry of accessories sprang up, which included sealed waterproof cigarette cases, windbreaks for lighting matches, match cases, even “Smoking Helmets”.

British soldier offers a cigarette to a wounded German, Battle of Pilkem Ridge, 31 July 1917. Source: Mary Evans Picture Library.

Pipes were also in demand due to their tendency to get dropped or break while on duty in the firing line. Cigarette companies advertised their postal service to France and many sought publicity by sending large quantities overseas free of charge. Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift Box, sent to the front in 1914, was a packet of cigarettes in a distinctive yellow packet.

Smoking became an international language between allies and even enemies.  It was considered unlucky to light three cigarettes off of a match, because the first light draw attention; the second gave an enemy a point to aim at; and on the third, somebody got killed.  Nevertheless, to allied troops smoking was shared camaraderie, even if they did not speak the same language; and it was considered the height of compassion to offer a smoke to a wounded enemy soldier.

‘Arf a mo,’ Kaiser by Bert Thomas (1883-1966). Source: Mary Evans Picture Library.

One of the most famous cartoons of the war, ‘Arf a Mo’ Kaiser’ by chain-smoker Bert Thomas (1883-1966) of the Artists’ Rifles was specially drawn (in about ten minutes) for the Weekly Dispatch Cigarette & Tobacco Fund to raise money for the supply of tobacco and cigarettes to front-line soldiers. It raised almost £250,000 and became one of the most recognizable images of World War I.  For more images of smoking in World War I see the Mary Evans Picture Library.

World War II

Two US servicemen smoking pipes – World War II. Source:

As part of the war effort, in World War II, US President Theodore Roosevelt made tobacco a protected crop.  Ration packs for soldiers of all Allied forces began to contain cigarettes, and traditions developed around smoking in WWI continued.  Soldiers and sailors loved to smoke and were encouraged to do so to improve morale and relieve boredom.  In 1943, Phillip Morris and its  competitors rolled and sold a record 290 billion cigarettes. Thirty percent of those cigarettes ended up overseas, stuck in the mouths of young GIs.  However, cigarettes were much harder to get at home due to war rationing, and often there would be line-ups on the days that cigarettes were available.

Due to a shortage of green dye, the American Tobacco Company changed the logo of its signature “Lucky Strike” brand from green to white, advertising on the slogan “Lucky Strike green has gone to war.”

Lucky Strike cigarette ad.  This image is in the public domain.

Lucky Strike cigarette ad. This image is in the public domain.

The association with the US boys in olive drab increased sales by 38 percent in 1942.  Some statistics claim that cigarette smoking jumped 75 percent in the United States from 1940 to 1945 with the average annual consumption reaching 3500 cigarettes per person. In the meantime, motivated partially by scientific data on lung cancer and birth rates beginning to come to light, and partially motivated by Adolf Hitler’s personal distaste for the habit, Nazi Germany embarked on the first major anti-smoking campaign in the modern world.

Marine Sgt. Angelo Klonis by W. Eugene Smith. Source: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The image of the American dogface with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth certainly became iconic; such as this classic photograph of Marine Sgt. Angelo Klonis at Saipan, taken by award-winning war photojournalist W. Eugene Smith.

MacArthur in Manila, Philippines c. 1945, smoking a corncob pipe. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most iconic images of World War II is decorated US General Douglas MacArthur smoking his incredibly overdone corncob pipe, which is now acknowledged as a unique style among pipe smokers.

Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War

Smoking rates remained high among service personnel in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  After Vietnam, studies on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder indicated that veterans who suffer from PTSD are more likely to smoke, and smoke more heavily than other smokers.  While most vets with a PTSD diagnosis believe that smoking helps them to manage their symptoms, most medical experts say that in the long term it makes PTSD worse, because the pains of withdrawal, or a “nic fit,” make anxiety attacks worse.  Furthermore, military-sanctioned smoking may contribute significantly to an earlier average mortality rate for war vets.

3d Battalion 3d Marines Mutters Ridge 1969: Department of Defense Photo (USMC). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

An all-out war erupted during the Gulf War between the smoking prevention policies implemented by the US military and tobacco companies looking for continued access to their traditionally lucrative market of deployed service personnel.  In particular, the Tobacco Institute (a lobbying group) and Philip Morris went out of their way to do end-runs around the policies, freely delivering cigarettes and branded merchandise to the troops in Saudi Arabia when the US Department of Defense would not, and sponsoring the “Marlboro holiday voice card” program.  Held on ten military bases, they invited family of deployed personnel to record a message for their loved ones onto a chip inserted into a greeting card, and later allowed bases to extend the recording of such messages to the public.   RJ Reynolds placed their company name on the front and a Camel advertisement on the back of donated magazines from Operation Desert News, a civilian project to bring magazines to the troops. In spite of the initial rejection by the Department of Defense due to the advertisement, constant pressure from RJ Reynolds and politicians allowed the magazines to be delivered with the advertisement at government expense.  in 1991, tobacco companies sponsored “Welcome Home” events for returning troops featuring extensive brand promotion.

Present Day

With the smoking lamp lit, Sergeant James A. Gilliam, vice president of the mess, lights a cigar for Sergeant Major Allen L. Tanner, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Sergeant Major, at the 26th MEU mess night held at the Ball Center aboard Camp Lejeune, NC, Feb. 23, 2010. Source:

While smoking remains a significant part of military culture, currently, most of the English-speaking world is trying to reduce smoking in their military services.  The withdrawal of cigarettes from ration packs in 1975 in the US military was the first step in this process, aside from the anti-smoking methods implemented in Nazi Germany; and the call to do so became louder when unauthorized smoking and improper storage of chemicals caused major damage to USS George Washington in 2008.  But it seems that the US military in particular is fostering smoking on one hand and restricting it on the other.  Smoking is forbidden below decks on submarines in the US military as of 2010, and also in basic training.  However, subsidized, cheap cigarettes are still available on military bases and smoking is still very much part of military culture.  The “after-mission cigar” has become a staple of modern military films and literature.  Some anti-smoking activists are working very hard to forbid smoking in the military entirely.  Most soldiers, sailors and airmen believe this is a pipe dream.

Why Do Military Personnel Smoke?

Our magazine cannot, and would not, deny the evidence that regular tobacco consumption, especially in the form of cigarettes, is harmful and dangerous.  So one must consider: why is it that 32.2% of our service personnel smoke, when the US national average is only 19.4%?

The American Lung Association believes that it is primarily linked to social factors and peer pressure, mixed advertising messages, and availability. In a 2009 survey, 29.7 percent of military smokers started to smoke after joining.  8 percent of light- or moderate-smokers reported that they would smoke less if the number of places on installations where smoking was permitted was limited, and 25 percent said they would smoke less if prices were raised to match those at outside installations. Over 73 percent of service members reported that “some” or “most” of their friends in the service smoke.

A U.S. Army soldier from the 3rd Brigade combat team of 101st Airborne Division smokes a cigarette during a patrol mission in the town of Owesap, about 12 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq, in 2007. By Petr David Josek, AP.

Deployment increases risk.  One study found that among nonsmokers, smoking initiation was observed in 1.3% of nondeployed personnel while 2.3% were observed in deployed personnel. Among past smokers, resumption of smoking occurred in 28.7% of nondeployed personnel and 39.4% of deployed personnel, while smoking increased 44% among the former and 57% among the latter.  US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been reported to smoke at twice the rate of other Americans.

However, when asked why it is that they smoke, active duty, light- or moderate-smoking personnel said:

  • To relieve stress – 74.4 percent
  • To relax or calm down – 75.3 percent
  • To relieve boredom – 55.5 percent

Other professions that include a greater than average number of smokers are: miners and construction workers (31.4%,) food preparation and serving works (30.0%,) and transportation (professional drivers) and material moving (28.7%).  There is also a greater prevalence of smoking among the working class and poor.  There seems to be a sense that lack of education drives people to make stupid decisions about their health, and this is the reason for that statistic, but I would suggest it would be a result of limited entertainment funds and a reduced prospect of quality of life, making the health risks seem less.

It seems to me that the profession of soldiering has significant elements in common with these professions.  These jobs are all very high stress for very low pay, and require a person to remain mentally alert for long hours of boredom, broken up by intense periods of high-stress activity.  As a mental stimulant, I can see how tobacco may assist in this process.

Contrary to popular belief, about one quarter of American service personnel come from upper class families and tend to be better educated than the typical American, which, I think, successfully disproves the “stupid uneducated poor people” theory.

It is doubtful that prohibition will work to eliminate smoking in the military, since it never has worked for any other restricted substance, but perhaps efforts to limit smoking to particular times and places would be helpful.  Also, I suggest that the convenience of cigarettes, and their toxic qualities, contribute to the problem, and going back to the old days of a “gentleman’s (or ‘woman’s) smoke” may be the solution.  But until health authorities acknowledge the studies that indicate that cigar and pipe smoking are less harmful than cigarette smoking, and fund better research to either confirm or disprove these somewhat limited studies, that will not happen.

Furthermore, service personnel are already willing to risk their lives for us, and have been exposed to numerous toxic chemicals as well as bullets, bombs, radiation, and all manner of deadly horrors, all of which significantly decrease their lifespans; by comparison, I can’t imagine smoking seems that dangerous to them.  And in this lady’s perspective, I think it’s pretty arrogant and presumptuous to ask our service personnel to take all of these deadly risks on our behalf, and then tell them that they are not allowed to take risks for themselves if they wish to.

Smoking Jacket Magazine salutes all of our boys and girls in military service; and of course in particular, today we salute our veterans.  Lest we forget.


1. “Smoking in the United States Military.”  Accessed November 8, 2014.

2. NBC News Website, “Smoking in the Military: An Old Habit Dies Hard.”  Accessed November 9, 2014.

3. American Lung Society Website, “Military and Tobacco Use.”  Accessed November 9, 2014.

4., “Key Dates in the History of Anti-Tobacco Campaigning.”  Accessed November 8, 2014.

5. The Navy Department Library Website, “Origin of Navy Terminology.”  Accessed November 8, 2014.

6. The First World War Blog from the Mary Evans Picture Library, “‘Arf a mo,’ Kaiser – Smokes for Tommy – Cigarettes & soldiers, WW1.”  Accessed November 8, 2014.

7. America in World War II’s Website, “Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em.”  Accessed November 9, 2014.

8. “Anti-tobacco Movement in Nazi Germany.”  Accessed November 9, 2014.

9. “US Smoking Rates Vary Widely by Profession.”  Accessed November 9, 2014.

10. “Who Serves in the Military Today?”.  Accessed November 9, 2014.

16 thoughts on “Smokes for the Boys: A History of Smoking and the Military

  1. About the time that this article was posted on Smoking Jacket Magazine (November 2014), a new book was released by Briar Books Press ( titled Tobacco and Smoking Among The Blue and Gray. The Illustrated History of an American Folk-Art Curiosity: The Civil War Soldier’s Tobacco Pipe. This is a book that detail–and celebrate–soldiers and smokes in war, should anyone be interested in this topic.

      • Sable: after a couple years, I have decided to craft another book on soldiers and tobacco. I am hoping that this one will see printer’s ink in 2020: Tobacco in the Trenches: A Tribute to World War I Servicemen and Their Smokes.

        BTW: My intention is to give honorable mention in my book to your great article: “Smokes for the Boys.”

        Ben Rapaport

      • I am excited to hear about this! That’s great, please keep us informed so that we can keep our readers informed. And congratulations!

        And I am right honoured that you think something that I wrote is worth mentioning in your book. Thank you so much! 🙂

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  12. “As part of the war effort, in World War II, US President Theodore Roosevelt made tobacco a protected crop.”

    I think you mean President FRANKLIN Roosevelt, who was the president during World War II, not Teddy, who left office in 1909 and died in 1919, 20 years before World War II started.

    • Yes, I suppose I do, but I’m pretty sure that’s what the source I read had written. Sorry about that! I am Canadian and am not always precise on the succession of American Presidents. 🙂

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