February is the month we celebrate Presidents Day, a day of retail sales and a postal and banking holiday. In elementary school during the 1960s, we celebrated much differently. The lives of Lincoln and Washington were explored, including what they meant to our country, their accomplishments, and the reason why we celebrated their birth. But change took over. The individual birthdays of Lincoln and Washington were lumped together to form Presidents Day and it seems like the importance of their lives had diminished. Looking back, we were told the snippets of their lives that young minds should be told. We didn’t see pictures or hear stories of these men smoking cigars or chewing tobacco. On the other hand, it seemed normal to see grown men celebrate with a cigar after a victorious win. Given it’s Presidents Day, here’s a quick look at some of the U.S. Presidents who used tobacco during their life.
About 61% of our Presidents used tobacco, but more so in the form of cigars, chewing tobacco and pipes. Cigarettes didn’t become popular until the rolling machine mass-produced the cigarette and made them cheaper in the 1900s.
Although George Washington grew tobacco, there is no evidence that he smoked any. Early presidents such as John Adams, James Madison, and John Q. Adams all liked their cigars, as did later presidents JFK, Johnson, Nixon and Clinton. Ulysses S. Grant was a light smoker until the Civil War when the stresses of battles increased his consumption. It was reported that he smoked during one battle to relieve the stress. Upon hearing this, the public sent him boxes of cigars, some estimate as many as ten thousand cigars. Although he gave away the majority, he admitted he smoked more than he would have had he not received the gifts. It is said he smoked up to 20 cigars a day. He was so well-known for his cigars, that when he ran for President, a song was written called “A Smokin’ His Cigar.” Smoking all those cigars was not without consequences; Grant died of throat cancer at age 63.
Some presidents enjoyed other forms of tobacco. Andrew Jackson was more into chewing tobacco, which was popular in the early 1820s. Brass spittoons were installed in the White House because of his habit. Chew was also the tobacco of choice for Grover Cleveland during the late 1880s.
The pipe was the form of tobacco used by Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison. Gerald Ford was a non-stop pipe smoker, and one of the last regular tobacco users in the White House.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the first cigarette-smoking presidents in office. His heavy cigarette use lead to a chronic cough and respiratory problems, as well as cardiovascular disease, which was exasperated by his smoking. He was often photographed with his cigarette holder held tightly between his teeth. He died during his fourth term as president at age 63. Dwight D. Eisenhower reported smoking four packs a day. He quit cold turkey in office. Although he lived to be 78, Eisenhower had 7 heart attacks and 14 cardiac arrests between 1955 and 1968.
After state and private dinners at the White House, it was common for men to retire to another room to enjoy an after dinner cigar, supplied by the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt made her women guests feel comfortable by supplying them with cigarettes to enjoy with their coffee, as did other administrations until and through Eisenhower in the 1950s.
Reagan smoked cigarettes during his days as an actor, but by the time he was elected President, he no longer smoked. His doctor wanted smoking banned in the White House. Although Reagan didn’t want to offend his guests who smoked, supplying them with cigarettes on the table ended. Smoking wasn’t encouraged during the Bush administration although ash trays were still present on tables. By the Clinton administration smoking was prohibited in the White House and the ash trays removed.
Barack Obama has admitted smoking in the past, but claims to have given up the habit using nicotine gum.