The US military issued them to the troops from World War II to 1976 and begged for them in World War I. Hollywood fell in love with them for scene- and mood-setting in the 1930s. In 1951, a future President of the United States promoted them as Christmas gifts.
Then in 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry told the country what the industry already knew: “cigarette smoking causes lung cancer.” Terry also told reporters at that January press conference that smoking probably caused heart disease as well and that “the government should do something about it.”
That press conference was held on a Saturday in part to minimize the report’s effect on the stock market. After all, in 1964 smoking was common, fashionable, and done everywhere.
Across the Atlantic, British leaders were already moving from talk to action. The Royal College of Physicians in England had issued its first warning of the dangers of cigarettes in 1962. The last British television ad for cigarettes ran on 31 July 1965.
When announcing the forthcoming ban in February 1965, the British Minister of Health noted that deaths from lung cancer had increased five percent from 1963 to 1964 (first nine months of each year).
The cigarette industry had “voluntarily” limited its British television ads to after 9 p.m. Estimated annual revenue loss for a ban that did not apply to cigars or pipe tobacco: $15 million ($141 million in 2022 dollars).
In the United States, the last cigarette ad on television appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on 01 January 1971, almost six years after the ban in Britain.
Congress had passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act (Public Law 91–222) in 1969.
About 1-in-5 cancer deaths in the United States is from lung cancer. Note that 10-15% of lung cancers occur in non-smokers.
The role of our government
In World War I, service men got their cigarettes at canteens run by non-profit organizations.
Assistant War Secretary Benedict Crowell estimated that virtually all of the American Expeditionary Forces during the war used tobacco, with cigarettes the overwhelmingly favorite mode of ingestion. And soldiers brought their habit home with them.
Not only that, military leadership asked for cigarettes.
U.S. Army Gen. John Pershing exclaimed, “You ask me what we need to win this war. I answer tobacco as much as bullets. Tobacco is as indispensable as the daily ration; we must have thousands of tons without delay.”
Consequently, community groups like the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army and the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) sent tobacco products to soldiers in Europe.
By the end of WWI, the US government had provided more than 5.5 billion cigarettes to service men and community groups like the YMCA had provided an additional 2 billion.
Widespread availability led to slang like this:
Take 10; smoke ’em if you got ’em!
I am only now learning how extensively the US military has served as a pimp for the tobacco industry, long after the health issues were documented.
That really ticks me off.
In 1944, the United States Senate Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program analyzed the Army’s cigarette procurement program, which was driving up domestic prices of cigarettes.
Army officials testified that they had procured nearly 100 billion manufactured cigarettes for fiscal year 1944 alone, an amount that ensured every Army soldier would receive 1.3 packs (16 manufactured cigarettes) per day.
My WWII Navy veteran father smoked two packs of unfiltered Pall Malls a day. As I child, I routinely asked, from the backseat, for him to “crack the window, daddy” when he smoked in the car.
Second-hand smoke was not yet a thing.
From the American Journal of Public Health (September 2009):
Cigarettes had been regarded as a physical and moral hazard, but by 1918, previously anticigarette organizations and the military were giving them to troops. British writer G. K. Chesterton compared the risks of smoking in combat to “the perils of gluttony in a famine.” Cigarettes were said by the New York Times to “lighten the inevitable hardships of war,” and were described by a popular periodical as “the last and only solace” of the wounded.
Smoking is significantly more prevalent in the military: 24-38% of service members smoke compared to 14% of civilians. The Department of Defense notes: “Despite improved screening methods for lung cancer and advances in treatment, the 5-year survival rate remains extremely poor at 20%.”
For decades, military commissaries sold cigarettes with no state or local taxes. According to recent research, cigarettes remain cheaper on military bases than from non-base retailers.
We refuse to learn
In November 2014 – 49 years after the cigarette ads ban – ads for e-cigarettes appeared on British television. The Committee of Advertising Practice had green-lighted ads for vaping.
Professor Martin McKee, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the BBC:
First we need to get an agreement on whether they aid people to quit smoking or whether they become a lifestyle choice that people are going to use for 40 years – this hasn’t been resolved yet. And there are still huge questions about their safety.
Experts are also particularly concerned the adverts may lead to the renormalisation of images of smoking again. A number of e-cigarette companies are owned by the tobacco industry.
This is the first study to assess the link between exposure to e-cigarette advertising and current e-cigarette use, and it concludes that efforts to reduce youth exposure to advertising are critical to prevent youth from using e-cigarettes as well as other tobacco products.
Tobacco illustrates what poorly regulated capitalism looks like: a corporatocracy.
Tobacco and entertainment industries
The Guardian reported in 2008 that American Tobacco paid actors such as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy $10,000 each (the equivalent to $208,000 in 2022 dollars) to promote Lucky Strike in 1937-38. The total annual expenditure for film star endorsements was $218,750, more than $4.6 million in current dollars.
American Tobacco was formed in North Carolina post-Civil War. Confederate sailor and tobacco farmer Washington Duke sold “small packages of ribbon-cut tobacco sufficient for pipe or cigarette paper” to thousands of soldiers returning home. His tobacco was “popular among Union and Confederate veterans once they returned home and resumed civilian pursuits.”
When Duke founded the American Tobacco Company in 1890 and focused its energies on the emerging cigarette market, he leveraged popularity among veterans to monopolize the entire manufactured cigarette market by the early twentieth century.