Navy Medicine’s War on King Tobacco, Part I

By André B. Sobocinski, BUMED Historian

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Tucked away in the Naval History and Heritage Command’s photographic archive is the image above dated 1944 showing an almost endless human chain of Sailors carrying boxes of Lucky Strike cigarettes onto the USS Missouri‘s forward main deck. The caption reads: “An average of five cases of cigarettes is smoked during a tour at sea.”

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In the “Age of Sail,” tobacco was a means of acceptance into the naval fraternity.

From smoke-lamps to chewing boards to cigarette rations there is no denying that tobacco has been a part of Navy history from the very beginning.  Through the ebbs and flows of wars and peace, aboard ship and ashore, cigarettes have been everything from that “quick fix” stress relief to a reason to take a break. In the “Age of Sail,” tobacco was a means of acceptance into the naval fraternity. An editorial in The Analectic Magazine published in 1816, advised that all young officers needed to learn to chew tobacco and to show others that they were “master of this indispensable accomplishment.” The author writing under the nom-de-plume “Old Lieutenant” would go on to advise that they needed to “take special care to spit in the most conspicuous manner.”(1)  There’s little doubt the resulting shipboard puddles of tobacco would have predated smoking and tobacco chewing as recognized health hazards in the Navy.

As the concept of public health and disease prevention was taking form across the globe in the 1870s, we begin to see Navy physicians looking at tobacco use as a viable threat to one’s health.  In an 1873 report, Navy Surgeon A.A. Hoehling remarked that tobacco usage aboard USS Monongahela was excessive and attributed it to cases of gastric disturbances (i.e., “eructions and emesis”).  Hoehling noted that crewmembers averaged three pounds of tobacco monthly.(2)

Image 2. Med. Dir. Albert Leary Gihon began  a crusade against tobacco at the Naval Academy in the 1870s
In the 1870s and 1880s, Medical Director Albert Gihon, USN, a noted sanitary reformer of the day, became a vocal opponent of tobacco use.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Medical Director Albert Gihon, USN, a noted sanitary reformer of the day, became a vocal opponent of tobacco use.  While serving as medical officer at the Naval Academy, Gihon called tobacco the most “important matter in the health history” of the midshipmen and urged its strict enforcement.(3)  Gihon could be considered something of a “tobacco moralist” who connected its use with self-destructive behaviors like alcohol abuse, and “uncontrolled” sexual proclivities.(4)

By the early twentieth century, tobacco was on the rise in Navy and the statistics were staggering.  In 1907, Navy Surgeon O.H. Norton reported that a three-month supply of tobacco aboard USS Missouri consisted of 1,500 books of cigarette papers, 1,200 pounds of smoking tobacco, as well as 37,0000 Navy-issued cigarettes—and this was for a complement of just 700 Sailors and Marines!(5) In the very same year, Navy Surgeon General Presley Rixey called for a ban on smoking for all Sailors under the age of 21. Presaging the health risks of tobacco, Rixey said the prohibition of smoking would minimize daily visits to the sick bay and “enhance the general efficiency of service.”(6) Rixey would place tobacco use in the same category as “alcohol indulgence” and the ever-pernicious “cocaine habit.”(7)

 Endnotes:

(1)   Old Lieutenant. “To the Young Officers of the American Navy.” The Analectic Magazine; Oct 1816, 8, pp341-342.

(2)   Hoehling, A.A. Hygienic and Medical Reports by Medical Officers of the U.S. Navy. Washington, DC: GPO, 1874. p315.

(3)   Gihon, Albert L. Medical report of the Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD. Annual Report of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy. Washington, DC: GPO 1879. pp 134-138.

(4)   Gihon, Albert. “A Naval Surgeon on Tobacco and Boys.” Christian Advocate; June  9, 1881; 56. p14.

(5)   Norton, O.D. “Notes on Navy Rations.” Annual Report of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy, 1907. p102.

(6)   Kress, D.H. “A Puff of Smoke: Is the cigarette in opium’s class.” Herald of Gospel Liberty; Aug 12, 1915; 107, 32. p1008.

(7)   Rixey, Presley. “Cigarette Habits aboard Men-of-War.” Annual Report of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy, 1908. Page 141.