The military and tobacco seem to have a long history. As far back as the American Revolutionary War tobacco was important to the military, but back then it was used “as collateral for the loans the Americans borrowed from France.” It was less about the military personnel smoking and more about tobacco farmers losing their exports as the British destroyed the tobacco in retaliation.
During the Civil War, destruction of tobacco crops and naval blockades of ports reduced tobacco for civilians, but not so for the soldiers who often just helped themselves to the tobacco crops as they marched to their destination. Sailors serving the U.S. Navy had been getting tobacco rations for years and not to be outdone, by February 1864 the Confederate army also started supplying their soldiers with tobacco rations. These rations came in handy with Southern soldiers as they traded their tobacco with Union soldiers for Northern coffee. Tobacco probably helped stave off hunger as food was at times in short supply. The Civil War ended, but it was the start of tobacco rations to all soldiers. The end of the war also was the beginning of the first commercially-made, hand-rolled cigarettes.
Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War Union general, started out as a pipe smoker during the war, but switched to cigars. When a newspaper article showed him with a cigar in his mouth, ordinary citizens sent him thousands as a thank you for his Union victories. From then on he was rarely seen without a cigar, going through as many as 20 during the day. He went on to become the 18th President of the United States, and died of throat cancer in 1885, twenty years after the war ended.
Prior to World War I, loose tobacco and pipes were most common, but warfare in muddy trenches made smoking a pipe difficult. Rations of loose tobacco and rolling papers gave way to rations of manufactured rolled cigarettes. Families at home were encouraged to send their soldiers smokes while one cigarette manufacturer, Bill Durham, “sold the whole of its cigarette production to the War Department in 1918.” Tobacco was so important during the war that at the request of General John J. Pershing, cigarettes were part of the daily rations. Free smokes for the soldiers meant lifetime smokers after the war. WWI ended in 1918, but by the 1930s, about 12 years after the end of war cases of lung cancer, which was a rare disease at the time, were starting to be seen. The war to end all wars ended, but the free smokes given to the soldiers meant lifetime smokers after the war.
Another World War reinforced the smoking culture. Rations for soldiers included “meat, vegetables and starches,” and of course cigarettes. According to America in WWII only 30% of manufactured cigarettes made their way overseas, but it was the best brands such as “Chesterfields, Camels, Kools, and Pall Malls.” Cigarettes from home still made it in packages destined for military family members serving overseas and caused shortages here in the States. Cigarettes were so much a part of the culture that camps set up in France for soldiers traveling to the front lines were named for popular cigarette brands. These same camps processed the men as they headed home. Even American Red Cross packages to prisoners of war contained five packages of cigarettes. As the war ended, those who made it home were now loyal cigarette customers.