Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

By Carl Zebrowski

WWII Americans loved to smoke cigarettes. Who could blame them? Movie stars smoked. The president smoked. The heroes fighting the enemy overseas smoked. No one quite knew the extent of the dangers of inhaling all that tar and carbon monoxide from those nifty little sticks of shredded tobacco rolled neatly in paper and sold in such handsome and handy packages.

The tobacco business was doing very well. A lot of people thought that as good—good for tobacco companies and their investors, and for the American economy as a whole. One 1943 Phillip Morris ad glowed like a lit butt with enthusiasm. “America is smoking more,” it proclaimed. 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. For those who then wondered whether they should be even more anxious because they smoked too much, an ad for the new hint-of-mint Julep cigarettes offered some comforting advice. “Should you cut down now?” asked the headline in order to set up the response “Switch to Juleps and smoke all you want!” Smaller type explained that “even chain-smokers find that new Julep Cigarettes banish unpleasant smoking symptoms.”

Cigarettes were actually part of the GIs’ rations, right alongside more obvious staples such as meat, vegetables, and starches. The most popular brands found their way all over the world, in some cases everywhere but home. Often missing in the States were Chesterfields, Camels, Kools, and Pall Malls. So Americans who remained behind were stuck smoking long-forgotten off-brands such as Rameses and Pacayunes if they could find cigarettes at all. Archie P. McDonald, a historian from Texas, recalled “lines outside stores on the one or two days per week that cigarettes were available for purchase.” By December 1944, signs lamenting “no cigarettes” turned up in store windows everywhere. Cigarettes eventually became so scarce in some places that a lot of confirmed smokers were forced to end their addictions. Others clung tenaciously to their vice, paying three to four times the standard pack price for their preferred brands on the gray market.

The American Tobacco Company was one of the big success stories in its field. With marketing genius that has had few peers outside the industry, the company responded to a war-created shortage of its green dye, which contained copper, by changing the color of packages for its best-selling Lucky Strike brand from green to white. As much a part of its reasoning for the move was to please women, who had long complained that the green clashed with their carefully chosen outfits. And though the metallic dye made the package stand out, it wasn’t cheap. An ad campaign that coincided fortuitously with the US invasion of North Africa plugged the new look with the patriotic slogan “Lucky Strike green has gone to war.” The clever marketing strategy linking the cigarettes psychologically with the boys in olive drab worked, and sales shot up 38 percent in 1942. But at least one radio program, the popular quiz show Information Please, dropped Lucky Strike as a sponsor because its producer heard too many complaints that the ads were annoyingly disingenuous.

With all those cigarettes burning, there were bound to be short-term consequences besides coughs, sore throats, and foul odors. One major concern was forest fires, which seemed to be an epidemic with, among other things, smokers tossing butts and matches onto grounds covered with grass, leaves, and twigs. The enduring icon Smokey Bear became the mouthpiece for urging Americans to be more conscientious. Born in August 1944 on a government poster that read “Smokey says—Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires,” Smokey would by year’s end be delivering his classic line, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

The extent of the consequences of smoking would not come to full light until years after all those GIs returned home addicted to cigarettes. “I’m going to sue the government!” joked WWII veteran Walter Berns of the American Enterprise Institute. “That’s when I started smoking.” That was true for many, and according to some sources, cigarette smoking jumped 75 percent in the United States from 1940 to 1945 with the average annual consumption hitting a heart-stopping 3,500 cigarettes per person. It was no joke.

Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor of America in WWII magazine. This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.


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