Jarred by Babe’s Smoking, Though WWII Enabled So Much of It

My mother smoked for at least 55 of her 71 years, as far as I can tell. I know she must have started in her teens. And while smoking isn’t what killed her, it certainly didn’t make her final months any easier.

Babe’s letters give a glimpse at what a different time it was where attitudes about smoking are concerned. Again, remember, Babe was 18 when he went into the service. And in one letter, he writes to thank his parents for the good timing  of a package that arrived — complete with the cigarettes they included, saving him a trip to the PX.

In the next, he notes that cigarettes were offered as rewards for better performance on the rifle range. I can imagine that these were the same attitudes that allowed my mother to start smoking at such a young age, without raising an eyebrow by her parents.

The picture with this post shows mini cigarette packs that contained four cigarettes and were included in army rations, compliments of the U.S. Army quartermaster. You can see a fairly detailed explanation of field rations, complete with info about the smokes, on this blog entry:

During the Second World War the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps issued K-rations to paratroops, tank units, rangers, air forces, or wherever space was a factor. Each of the three daily K-ration meals contained a small packet of four cigarettes. Camel, Chesterfield, and Lucky Strike were popular brands with the troops, but all of the major and several of the minor cigarette manufacturers had contracts with the government.

The magazine America in WWII has a fairly lengthy dispatch about the power of the tobacco companies to tap into the military market for cigarettes. It notes the milestone cigarette makers hit in 1943, the same year Babe enlisted in the military:

That year, Phillip Morris and its similarly pleased competitors rolled and sold a record 290 billion cigarettes. Thirty percent of those cigarettes ended up overseas, stuck in the mouths of young GIs. But most of the other 70 percent remained in the States for tense folks at home, who perhaps developed the nervous nicotine habit in a misguided effort to relieve the anxiety brought on by the possibilities and realities of the massive and frighteningly modern war.

World War II was an incredible boon to cigarette makers. I found a study posted on the U.S. National Institutes of Health Division of Cancer Control that made special note of how ubiquitous smoking was in the military during the war. The chart above comes from that study (sourcing the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Note that the rate of per-capita consumption and production makes a hockey stick in the early 1940s. Can you find another place on that chart where the line shoots up so fast?

Marketing and free distribution of cigarettes to military personnel during the Second World War is likely to have played a prominent role in generating the high prevalences (approximately 80 percent) of ever smoking (smoking at least 100 cigarettes in a lifetime) among those cohorts of males who were of the correct ages to have served in the military during World War II.

Today, I read those letters and see the casual mention of smoking and cigarettes — and especially the way Babe’s parents enabled his habit — and I find it jarring.

2 thoughts on “Jarred by Babe’s Smoking, Though WWII Enabled So Much of It

  1. The Army PX certainly didn’t discourage smoking (cigarettes were “50¢ a carton when you have to buy them”), and, as you mention, they were often distributed free, but some soldiers didn’t smoke. My father wrote: “The 9th MRU is conducting a ‘carton for K’ week this week in which we are accumulating a carton of Chesterfields for K. Neither Mc nor Robbie nor I smokes [sic] cigarettes, but we take a pack each morning at breakfast (the only time they are issued) and save them. We just completed a ‘carton for Pete’ week in which we saved Luckies for him. Next we’ll have a ‘carton for Watts’ week in which we’ll save a carton of Camels for Lt Watts, K’s exec. These boys who smoke more than a pack a day are out of luck unless they have friends like us. Mc and Robbie each smoke a couple of cigars a day, so between the three of us we have no trouble keeping happy on that score.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s