Cigarettes were once thought to be beneficial to health; it
wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists revealed the links between smoking
and cancer. This journey through our collection shows the
surprising – and sometimes shocking – history of tobacco products in Britain.
Today, you’d be shocked if an arcade machine paid out in tobacco products – but in the 1930s, just 20 years before scientific evidence linked smoking to cancer, this was a reality. This game cost one penny to play, and winners were rewarded with cigarettes.
Tobacco arrives in Britain
Tobacco was first brought to Britain in 1565. By the early 1600s it was already causing a stir, and King James I of England described it as ‘loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain [and] dangerous to the lungs’. Despite this, smoking continued to grow in popularity.
Smoking for health?
During the Great Plague of 1665–1666, ‘miasma theory’ suggested diseases were caused by bad smells in the air. At this time, it was common for people to smoke cigarettes – or burn herbs and incense in fumigators, like this one – to protect themselves from infection.
The age of the cigarette
Tobacco pipes are synonymous with Victorian Britain; cigarettes were available, but expensive as they were hand-rolled by a tobacconist. It wasn’t until the 1880s that cigarettes were mass produced by machinery, making them cheaper and more accessible.
Cigarettes were not without their critics. The Primitive Methodist Anti-Cigarette League provided certificates to children who promised to refrain from smoking until they were 21.
Campaigners were successful in politics too: the 1908 Children’s Act forbade the selling of cigarettes to under-16s.
Selection of cigarette cards (1913/1915) by W.D. & H.O. Wills and Imperial TobaccoScience Museum
Tobacco manufacturers employed various techniques to promote brand loyalty and boost sales. Cigarette cards, which became popular collector’s items, were one of the most successful.
Smoking for victory
By the First World War (1914–18) cigarettes were more popular than pipe tobacco. This tin was sent by Princess Mary to all soldiers serving overseas at Christmas in 1914. Alongside a Christmas card, it contained a packet of 20 cigarettes.
Many tobacco companies supported the troops by sending their products to servicemen; at home, they used images of soldiers in their advertising campaigns. Even today, smoking rates are higher in the military than the general population, so the connection between cigarettes and war remains.
Smoking and cancer
In 1950 the link between cigarettes and lung cancer was discovered by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill; they published their findings in the British Medical Journal. In subsequent years, as the connection was cemented, the slow decline of smoking in Britain began, and there was an eventual rise in anti-smoking campaigns.
Produced in 1957, this comic-style leaflet deals with smoking within a fictional family in light of the then-recent discovery of health concerns about smoking.
Some campaigns used the health of children as a motivational motif. This poster dates from the 1960s, before passive smoking was identified as an explicit health risk; it was likely intended to give smokers with children an extra reason to quit.
Anti-smoking campaigns became more common after the 1980s, when the dangers of passive smoking were scientifically proven. Campaigners used a variety of methods to get the message across: this poster attacks smoking’s reputation, hoping to put it ‘out of fashion’.
More recent anti-smoking posters contain explicit messaging about the impact tobacco products have on our health. This poster shows how much tar builds up in an average smoker’s lungs. Though first designed in the 1970s, the image proved so effective that it was still in use a decade later.
Stubbed out for good?
In 2007 the smoking ban came into effect in Britain, forbidding smoking in all public buildings. Some short-term effects, such as a significant drop in air pollution in UK bars, have already been observed, but it will take decades to understand the full impact of this legislation. Increased taxation and advertising bans have also helped to make tobacco products less visible and accessible.
All images © Science Museum Group except where stated.
Find out more about the history of smoking in our online collection.
The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group.