Smoke 'em if you got 'em: An Army of Smokers?

Unlike most tobacco addicts,I was a reluctant smoker at first. I had to work at becoming hooked. If it weren't for the repeated pressure from peers to conform, combined with coolness imagery and a narrative driven by manufacturers and advertisers, I'd have never even tried. This is the third installment of my personal journey into the hell of nicotine dependence. The story so far...

As the new kid in a rural farming town, I tried smoking to fit in, but smoking made me so ill I couldn't take any more than a few puffs at a time. I tried again to become a smoker, or at least fake being a smoker, a few years later when I developed a crush on a high school senior who was herself a heavy smoker. Pretending to be a smoker didn't cut it, however; she wasn't fooled, and the physical effects of tobacco on my body remained a powerful deterrent. Then I joined the Army. [Image: National Archives]

One thing about military life, especially basic training--everything is broken down into pain and simple pleasures. All the civilian things that are important to a new recruit--family, friends, relationships, hairstyles, clothes, TV, partying, chasing girls and boys--are systematically stripped away and replaced with a spartan existence and enforced reliance on routine and authority. Conformity, not rugged indidualism, becomes the order of the day.

You'd think that a habit like smoking, which damages the body, distorts human thought processes, and is marketed as symbol of autonomy and rebellion, would be a bad fit for property of Uncle Sam. Any you'd be right, except for one thing: Uncle Sam himself was a smoker, targeted by tobacco companies (eager to expand their markets by pitching cigarettes as morale-boosters for combat troops) as far back as WWI. Soldiers from privates to generals, as well as retirees, military civilians and dependents, are likely to smoke at up to twice the national average (which currently hovers around 20%).


During WWII, free cigarettes were rationed to soldiers via manufacturers and retailers, and were considered by the troops even more valuable than MRE's (meals ready to eat). Cigarettes became part of the wartime iconography. I myself was profoundly affected, long before ever trying to smoke, by movie images of Allied fighting men lighting up with satisfaction after winning a firefight, or bombing the bejeebus out of Hitler with jaunty little cigarettes stuffed in the sides of their mouth.

In the 1970's, the U.S. government began to re-evaluate smoking by troops, as evidence mounted that smokers performed at a lower physical level than nonsmokers, were more easily injured, and got sick more often. This ill effect on combat readiness ignited a war between the military and cigarette makers and sellers that continued throughout the 1980's and '90's.

Today, soldiers still smoke at a much higher rate than civilians, though the government has taken some positive steps in the right direction--even partnering with QuitNet to help soldiers get free of tobacco addiction.

Next time: So how did I finally get hooked on death sticks?

Alan P, CTTS, Healthways QuitNet