This Week’s Book Review – Smoke ‘Em if You got ‘Em

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Smoke ’em’ shows military’s role in masculine rite

By MARK LARDAS

Nov 27, 2018

“Smoke ‘em if You Got ‘em: The Rise and Fall of the Military Cigarette Ration,” by Joel R. Bius, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 328 pages, $39.95

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.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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6 thoughts on “This Week’s Book Review – Smoke ‘Em if You got ‘Em”

  1. Many years ago I moved from Los Angeles to San Diego. There was a greatly increased rate of smoking among staff at the law firm in San Diego contrasted with Los Angeles and Silicon Valley firms wirh which I was acquainted. I attributed this to San Diego still being a Navy town.

    Long before that, I visited Israel and was struck by the high smoking rate. I was told that most Israelis pick up the habit in the army. I was told that smokers got smoking breaks, whereas non-smokers did not get corresponding breaks.

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  2. Are there several sequels in the wind? For the sake of equality of outcome, isn’t it necessary to describe (in the same detail) the rite of passage undergone (suffered?) by females when it came to smoking. Ahh…? and what about LGBTQIA (is that the latest, correct-est acronym?)? We must be “inclusive” to the max, mustn’t we?

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  3. civil westman:
    Are there several sequels in the wind? For the sake of equality of outcome, isn’t it necessary to describe (in the same detail) the rite of passage undergone (suffered?) by females when it came to smoking. Ahh…?

    Female smoking grew when gals wanted to show they were “one of the guys.” In a real sense, it was a feminist, progressive thing.

    The real irony about men smoking is that started out as a progressive initiative also. The progressives of the WWI decade did not want doughboys drinking or using prostitutes, so they encouraged tobacco use as a substitute. After all, there was a war to win. (US participation in WWI was run by Progressive standards. The fascists imitated them.) The book makes that clear, but it got cut in my drive to get the review to 350 words.

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  4. ctlaw:
    Many years ago I moved from Los Angeles to San Diego. There was a greatly increased rate of smoking among staff at the law firm in San Diego contrasted with Los Angeles and Silicon Valley firms wirh which I was acquainted. I attributed this to San Diego still being a Navy town.

    Long before that, I visited Israel and was struck by the high smoking rate. I was told that most Israelis pick up the habit in the army. I was told that smokers got smoking breaks, whereas non-smokers did not get corresponding breaks.

    High percentages of people smoke in the Middle East.  I was in Egypt as a tourist in 1992-3 and saw a man smoking while kicking a soccer ball in the street.  Perhaps it’s a replacement for drinking alcohol in Muslim countries.  A significant percentage of Israelis came from surrounding countries after 1948.

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  5. Richard Easton:
    High percentages of people smoke in the Middle East.  I was in Egypt as a tourist in 1992-3 and saw a man smoking while kicking a soccer ball in the street.  Perhaps it’s a replacement for drinking alcohol in Muslim countries.

    You win the prize. As I said in my earlier comment, Progressives encouraged doughboys to smoke to keep them from drinking.

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  6. When I was young I was advised by a mentor to take my work break at the same time as the boss, so I would be included in his casual conversations.   I could only do this sometimes, and I soon figured out that the boss was breaking for smokes, along with the other smokers, who were all older than me.   My near contemporaries, like me, did not smoke.   Going on break with the smokers gave me privileged access to a number of useful conversations.

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