Accepted paper:

Gifts, bonds and social ties: the place of cigarettes in the British Army


Jude Robinson (University of Glasgow)

Paper short abstract:

Smoking rates remain high in parts of the British Army, sustained by a historic smoking culture. Accounts from soldiers and recruits suggest that giving and receiving cigarettes continues to sustain social relationships and smoking remains part of becoming/ being a 'soldier'.

Paper long abstract:

Despite the declining of numbers of smokers in the general population of the UK, in some areas of the armed services rates of smoking remain high and are believed to be highest in the Infantry regiments in the Army. Using Mauss's enlightening notion of gift giving as a reciprocal act to facilitate and cement social ties, I draw on accounts of smoking by recruits and soldiers in the British Army to consider how cultural ideas and normative army practices sustain smoking. Smoking related to identity, forming part of what it meant to be(come) 'the old and bold solider', with some recruits starting smoking after they joined the Army. Cigarettes were circulated relatively freely, but followed particular social pathways, which expanded and contracted depending on changing social, geographical and working contexts. Gifts of cigarettes were not always repaid, and could represent a social debt, or be converted to prestige on the part of the giver. The adoption of a preferred brand among many soldiers ensured that the gift of cigarettes was both acceptable and potentially repayable with a 'like' gift, with other brands representing higher or lesser value, and so creating further debt/ indebtedness. While cigarettes and smoking represent only a small part of wider army culture, they remain potent symbols and act as the physical, embodied manifestation of the ideal concepts of bonding, co-operation and support. As smoking/ cigarettes are believed to mitigate other, destructive, behaviours they may make this population particularly resistant to conventional health messages.

panel P08
Tobacco and Enlightenment