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Anyone serving in the U.S. military before 1980 remembers the cry opening every break: “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” Almost everyone, from the lowest private to the most senior officer present, would light up a cigarette.
Smoke ‘em if You Got ‘em: The Rise and Fall of the Military Cigarette Ration by Joel R. Bius examines the link between the military and cigarette smoking. He shows how cigarette consumption and the military were connected.
In 1900 cigarettes were a surprisingly small fraction of tobacco consumption. Around 7 percent of all tobacco products were retailed in the form of cigarettes. Cigarette smoking was viewed as unmanly and un-American.
World War I changed that. Nicotine proved the American Expeditionary Force’s battlefield drug of choice. Tobacco simultaneously calmed the nerves while increasing alertness. Smoking masked the battlefield’s stench. Although tobacco was known to be bad, its adverse effects were long-term. Meantime, there was a war to win. Organizations like the YMCA freely distributed cigarettes, the most convenient form of smoking tobacco to our boys in the trenches.
The link stuck when the boys returned home. Cigarettes gained the cachet as a man’s vice, linked with battlefield bravery. Bius follows the arc cigarette consumption followed through the century’s middle years. Battlefield use of cigarettes in World War II sealed the image of cigarettes as a masculine activity. By then, the Army issued a cigarette ration and subsidized smokes at the PX. Use hit a peak after World War II years when 80 percent of men smoked cigarettes.
Despite the 1964 Surgeon General’s warning and government efforts to cut tobacco use thereafter, cigarettes remained popular, even after the military eliminated the cigarette ration in 1972. It took the All-Volunteer Army to break the link between smoking and the military. Containing health care costs led the military to discourage tobacco use. That in turn broke smoking’s image as a masculine activity. Cigarette use plunged; until today, cigarette use is almost back to 1900 levels.
Smoke ‘em if You Got ‘em is a fascinating story about the rise and fall of a masculine rite of passage.