Site display: Normal | Text Only

My Collection | About Us | Teachers

Stubbed out: the rise and fall(?) of smoking in Britain

Wall mounted amusement arcade machine,United Kingdom, 1931-1940

Wall mounted amusement arcade machine,United Kingdom, 1931-1940

View Object



Cigarette in hand, footballing legend Stanley Matthews beams out of this magazine advert from 1952. This was the year before the FA Cup final that would cement his place in sporting history, but it was also around this time that research began to deliver results that would change the image of smoking for ever. Stanley says that with its ‘smooth, clean smoking’, Craven ‘A’ is ‘the cigarette for me’. At the time, such advertising was commonplace and often featured happy, healthy-looking people. Some, such as Stanley, were leading sports figures; others were well-known entertainers. Indeed, with the added approval from top Hollywood stars, smoking’s image was both cool and glamorous.

The history of early tobacco use in Britain

Although the history of tobacco is long, Britain’s relationship with it is relatively short. Used in the Americas for centuries before European adventurers brought it home, it first reached England in 1565. By the early 1600s the habit was already causing concern. In 1604, King James I wrote ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’, which dismissed smoking as ‘loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain [and] dangerous to the lungs’. Throughout the 1600s tobacco was occasionally subjected to further criticism, but demand continued to grow. Its supposed medical properties were even boosted during the Great Plague of 1665-66 - the pungent smoke was thought to protect against disease miasmas. At the height of the plague, smoking was actually made compulsory at Eton public school.

The increasing role of slavery

Increasing demand for tobacco came at a heavy human cost. Slave labour was introduced on the expanding American plantations from 1619 and became central to the trade. Cheap and exploited, enslaved workers ensured that plentiful supplies of tobacco reached British shops, a situation reflected in the size of British clay pipe bowls, which grew steadily bigger. The popularity of snuff during the 1700s further increased imports.

Anti-smoking campaigns: stopping the sale of tobacco for under-16s


The 1800s marked the era of the pipe-smoking Victorian gentleman - although much to their annoyance, there were also those prepared to condemn their favourite habit. Regarded as eccentrics, these anti-smoking campaigners made little headway, but they did have some success with younger smokers, ensuring a clause in the Children’s Act of 1908 forbidding the sale of tobacco to under-16s. By then, the role of tobacco in British society had shifted dramatically.

The increase in smoking during and after the First World War

In the 1880s automated cigarette-making machines heralded a complete transformation of the tobacco market. Cigarettes, previously handmade and expensive, had accounted for a tiny fraction of sales. By drastically reducing production costs, these machines provided mass production for new mass markets. Year on year cigarette sales rose dramatically, so that by the end of the First World War (1914-18) - a war synonymous with images of smoking soldiers - cigarette sales exceeded those of pipe tobacco. Smoking, previously seen as something of a male preserve, now appealed to women too. By 1949 it is estimated that 81% of men and 39% of women smoked. No longer a luxury item, cigarettes were part of everyday life.

The link between smoking and illness

Despite its prevalence, smoking was not viewed as a harmless pursuit. Vague associations with illness were well known and appreciated, with ‘coffin nails’ being a common slang term for cigarettes. While excessive smoking was discouraged, its apparent benefits as a stress-reducing pleasure generally outweighed major concerns. But then, in 1950, Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill published a report in the British Medical Journal. Their initial research suggested a link between smoking and the formation of lung cancer. Further evidence was produced in 1952, and in 1954 their research on the smoking habits of the nation’s doctors convinced most remaining sceptics. Responding with a news conference, the British Minister of Health, Iain Macleod - who chain-smoked throughout - agreed that a link had been proved.

Slow government action sees a slow decline in smoking

So began the slow decline of smoking in Britain, accompanied by a long battle of wits between the tobacco industry and health campaigners. The government was cautious about economic implications and did not wish to appear over-protective, so its own health campaigns did not swing into action until the mid-1960s. Only in 1971 was a voluntary agreement introduced which placed health warnings on tobacco products.

Modern smoking laws

More recently, additional laws have further marginalised smoking, and by implication those who smoke. Research from the 1980s onwards raised concerns about passive smoking and this has been a key factor in the various bans introduced in subsequent years. Beginning with voluntary workplace bans, these measures have progressed through compulsory public transport bans to the 2007 legislation which outlawed smoking in enclosed public places - and may yet have further to go.

In Britain, smoking levels continue to fall slowly.

What would Stanley have made of it all?


R Doll and A B Hill, Smoking and carcinoma of the lung. Preliminary report, British Medical Journal, 2 (1950), pp 739-48

R Doll and A B Hill, ‘The mortality of doctors in relation to their smoking habits’, British Medical Journal, 1 (1954) pp 1451-5

M Hilton, Smoking in British Popular Culture, 1800-2000 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)

S Lock, L A Ramsey and E M Tansey (eds) Ashes to Ashes: History of Smoking and Health (Clio Medica 46), (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B V, 1998)



Tobacco that has been finely powdered. Snuff is usually sniffed through the nose, or applied to the gums with a finger.