Not renowned for its public health measures, Nazi Germany led the first anti-smoking campaign in modern history and was the most powerful anti-smoking movement in the world during the 1930s and early 1940s.
Many countries had unsuccessful anti-tobacco movements from the beginning of the 20th century, but the campaign in Germany was supported by the government after the Nazis came to power. Research into smoking and its effects on health thrived under the Nazis and was the most important of its type at the time. Motivation for the campaign included Adolf Hitler’s personal dislike for tobacco and the Nazi reproductive policies.
The anti-tobacco campaign included banning smoking in public transport, promoting health education, limiting cigarette rations in the armed forces, organising medical lectures for soldiers and raising the tobacco tax. Tobacco advertising and smoking in public places was restricted. And these measures proved effective, as smoking by German military personnel declined from 1939 to 1945.
Hitler was a heavy smoker in his early life, but quit concluding that the habit was “a waste of money”. He promised to end the “decadent” practice in the military after the end of the war.
But Hitler was not the first national leader to disapprove of smoking. In 1604 James I of England expressed his distaste for tobacco in his treatise ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’. In this document James blamed native North Americans for brining tobacco to Europe, and warned of dangers to the lungs.
Germany led the world in research into the health risks of tobacco when the Nazis came to power. They were the first to prove the link between tobacco and lung cancer and to coin the term ‘passive smoking’ (passivrauchen).
Nazi reproductive policies played a part in the anti-tobacco campaigning. Women who smoked were thought to be vulnerable to premature ageing and loss of physical attractiveness and therefore unsuitable to be wives and mothers. German research was among the first to suggest that smoking mothers’ breastmilk contained nicotine and that smoking while pregnant causes a higher rate of stillbirths and miscarriages.
At the end of World War II, tobacco smuggling became prevalent and in 1949 around 400 million American cigarettes entered Germany illegally every month. As part of the Marshall Plan, the US spent $70m on shipping free tobacco into Germany. Annual cigarette consumption in Germany rose steadily from 460 per head in 1950 to 1,523 in 1963.