When watching movies that were made in first half of the 20th century, one can see many people are smoking (cigarettes), but it is not they smoke all time long. I refer to the movies, because they show the era's fashion and habits.

Cigarettes are shown, because they were part of lives, but they are not much common, that everybody smokes every time. They play important role eg. no-one could imagine Humphrey Bogart or James Bond without it in some scenes, but they are not existing the entire movie.

In "Mad Men" series, which was made a few years ago, but action takes place in 1950s., the people smoke everywhere. We see a pregnant woman smoking, even a gynecologist smoking by his patient. I understand that people did not know everything about health problems caused by smoking, but I am not sure if this is not exaggerated, as compared to movies from that time. I've spoken to some older people and they say it was not true, but it could have been in the USA. From remembrances they say, yes everybody did smoke, it was common to smoke at home by children, at office, but it was not allowable (both by law or habits) in other public places hospital, cinema etc.

Do "Mad Men" show truth about people habits and are intended to shock the viewer how common it was? The movies from the era could have been somehow censored or directors did not show cigarettes because it didn't add anything to action or they had theater habits, where it was forbidden to smoke on stage because of fire-security reasons.

Or maybe the authors of "Mad Men" wanted to show something shocking, but unfortunately they exaggerated it?

PS. A loosely related blog post

  • 1
    @MarkC.Wallace it's ok, but I think there is less smoking in eg. "Casablanca", "Some Like It Hot" or "Citizen Kane" than it is in "Mad Men". The "Mad Men" is very precise (I mean clothing, cars, treating female co-workers by men, etc.) and compared to movies from the era seem to be accurate, but smoking is the only thing that does not agree. The question is whether old movies were not accurate in this area or Mad Men aren't.
    – Voitcus
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 11:23
  • In what country? Including periods and locations where cigarette supply was artificially limited (e.g. wartime Britain), or not? A 50-year period across the whole world is a pretty wide target.
    – A E
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 12:43
  • 2
    @AE I'm interested in Western Civilization (ie. Europe and Americas), or groups where such people lived (eg. colonial officers). I think war time time does not change habit, it only changes type of cigarettes people use (but I understand soldiers smoke more than civilians)
    – Voitcus
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:30
  • 1
    I believe Mad Men takes place in 1960-1970. Definitely not the first half of the 20th century (for that matter, neither are the 1950s). Commented May 16, 2015 at 23:09
  • Re: Mad Men, see this. Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 12:45

7 Answers 7


By the 1970s, smoking in the USA was starting to come down from its peak in the early 1960s.
enter image description here

(Note that this is slightly deceptive in the early years of the 20th century, when cigarettes were relatively rare but cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco, and pipes were relatively common.)

I don't watch Mad Men, so I'm not certain of the characters' ages, but I believe most are middle-aged white men, meaning that they'd have been born in the 1930s and 40s. Over half of that demographic smoked in the 1970s:

enter image description here

Charts are from http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/tables/economics/consumption/index.htm (which now seems to have disappeared) and http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/brp/tcrb/monographs/8/m8_2.pdf.

  • Yes, they are middle-class white men aged about 30-40 years, having children not older than 15, but some other people shown on background from different groups also smoke.
    – Voitcus
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:44
  • I have accepted your answer as it is the only one to cover anything earlier than 1940s. (some people may have been suggested by the "Mad Men" in the question), but thanks to all for great answers. I'd only like to ask for clarification about the first chart: the Y-axis label is "cigarettes per capita". Does it mean these are cigarettes smoked by a person in a year?
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 5:21
  • I believe they're cigarettes sold per capita per year, which would be a little more than the number smoked but close. It looks like about 10-20 per day at peak, which seems about right.
    – iayork
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 11:29
  • 1
    A peak of smoking in the late 1960s (when I was a teenager) and subsequent decline matches a public aspect of smoking I recall: in the 1960s, on U.S. passenger trains in the Northeast, typically half the coaches were marked Smoking. A decade or so later, there was usually one smoking car per train. By the 1980s, smoking cars were disappearing, and I remember hearing a railroad manager say a little later that a smoking car would be a waste of seats because there would not be enough smokers to fill it.
    – Literalman
    Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 21:09

It certainly meshes up with my memory of the way things were in the early 70's. But my memory may be exaggerated too. (I was anti-smoking way before it was cool.)

It wasn't true that everyone smoked all the time, but it was certainly true that there were no real restrictions on locations smoking was allowed (short of near propane tanks). The first local public smoking restriction law anywhere in the US didn't happen until 1975, and states and cities didn't start banning it in restaurants until a decade later.

Before then, enough of the population smoked that this meant there was pretty much always someone smoking anywhere you might go. It wasn't everyone, but it was nearly half of all adults. enter image description here

In addition the people who did smoke smoked way more than they do today.

enter image description here

Stressful places and/or places where a person is expected to just chill for a while would be particularly effective for inducing all present nicotine addicts into lighting up, as enhancing focus and inducing calm are that drug's two primary effects. Quite likely most of the people who today take ADHD/ADD meds as adults would back in the 20th Century be self-medicating with nicotine.

At that time, smoking in popular media was not intended to accurately portray the true quantity of real-world smoking. Instead it was used as a signal to the viewer either that this is a very stressful environment, or that the character is trying to relax. A notable exception is one scene from 1981's Body Heat. There was a will reading where pretty much everyone present started lighting up. When Ted Danson's character is offered a cigarette, he responds with "No thanks, I'll just breathe the air". It stuck with me all these years because it rang shockingly true.

So that's pretty much how I remember the 70's. If anything, Mad Men is probably making an attempt to more accurately portray the prevalence of smoking at the time, and it looks shocking to you because you are more used to seeing smoking portrayed in the symbolic way that media has traditionally portrayed it. If they are going overboard, they aren't doing so nearly as much as movies traditionally have underplayed it.

  • (+1) What about the 1920s? Do you happen to know when cigarette smoking became so widespread?
    – Relaxed
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:04
  • @Relaxed for US, WW2 was a breaking point - in 1940 about half of tobacco went to pipes, cigars or chewing, in 1945 cigarrete usage doubled compared to 1940 while other tobacco uses decreased. The growth of cigarettes from almost nothing to half took the years between 1915 and 1940.
    – Peteris
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 13:16
  • 1
    @Relaxed - For cigarettes, the graphs above start at pretty near the maximum per-capita usage in the USA, as you can see from iayork's first graph. But Peteris is right that before that lots of people were just using other nicotine delivery methods, rather than not smoking at all.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 14:21
  • Do you also have any charts for the price of cigarettes? In my european country the taxes currently take about 80% of the price and I always thought the quantity of cigarettes per day would be correlated with the price increase (tax percentage increase) over the years. Also the comparison is difficult because the cigarettes they smoked before are not the same cigarettes we have today. There was a big difference in cigarette length, in filter length and more importantly, in the additives and nicotine content. Less additives means the cigarette smell wasn't so aggressive.
    – Sulthan
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 11:14
  • Very good point about "enough of the population smoked that this meant there was pretty much always someone smoking anywhere you might go." When I was in college in 2000, I would almost always bump into a half-dozen or more smokers hanging out outside every external doorway, despite the fact that most of the people I hung out with didn't smoke (nor did I). When I returned to campus about 15 years later, it was a little startling to see hardly anyone lighting up. I could actually walk from building to building without having to hold my breath.
    – Robert Columbia
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 23:38

Yes, most men smoked

For men born in USA between 1900 and 1930, about 80+% of them had been smoking at some point; and during 1920-1950 ~70% of them were current smokers.[1] This matches other countries - at ww1, for example, all soldiers generally received also a tobacco ration with the expectation that most of them will need it. For UK statistics, see [2].

At the very beginning of 1900ies very few women smoked, that's why the movie industry was used for product placement, among other advertising channels, to facilitate women smoking and thus 'double the market'. For some age cohorts, 40%-50% of women were smokers in the end - high compared to modern times, but less than contemporary men.

Pipes instead of cigarettes

While smoking as such was very common throughout the first half of the 20th century, the smoking of cigarettes become mainstream during that period - in 1900, only a tiny fraction of tobacco was consumed as cigarretes, while from 1945 cigarettes were absolutely dominant. [1] has illustrative graphs for these changes.

[1] http://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Burns5/publication/230746283_Birth-Cohort-Specific_Estimates_of_Smoking_Behaviors_for_the_US_Population/links/547928b60cf2a961e48781cf.pdf

[2] http://www.pnlee.co.uk/Downloads/ISS/ISS-UnitedKingdom_120111.pdf


Be careful using movies as research for the commonality of smoking in the early 20th century. Film stars were paid by various elements of the tobacco industry to be seen smoking and paid to smoke in films.

Here's a link to a reasonable summary of the scale of this advertising: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7632963.stm

  • Very, very true. In the first half of the 20th century, the appearance of things like cigarettes and diamonds in movies were often due to a kind of industry-wide product placement. After that became illegal (for tobacco), as I mentioned in my answer, it became something that was used sparingly as a signal for various things to the viewer. Since then, I believe (haven't seen stats) that the extent of real-world smoking in movies has been drastically underplayed. About 1/5th of Americans are still smokers, but you wouldn't know much of anyone is from our movies.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 12:28
  • This is interesting and a good point, but not a complete answer. More like a pointer.
    – o0'.
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 12:30
  • 2
    @T.E.D.: 1/5 of Americans may be smokers, but that fifth isn't evenly distributed among the population. It varies considerably with demographics, and with geography. In Kentucky, West Virginia, Mississippi, &c the rate is about double what it is in California.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 17:25
  • And among socioeconomic class. The poor are far more likely to be smokers than are the wealthy or middle class. Commented May 18, 2015 at 7:59
  • Be careful, because smoking was artificially kept down in the movies. You can't film with a heavy haze of cigarette smoke filling the sound stage. So they kept actual smoking to what seemed a believable symbolic minimum.
    – Zither13
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 21:51

First of all, I want to remark that people in the first half of 20-s century knew about health risks of smoking. I don't think any new discoveries were made in this area in the second half of the century.

Second, all answers above address the situation in the US, so let me add some first hand experience from other countries (I grew up in former Soviet Union and remember the situation since the late 50-s). Most men smoked, but relatively few women. Smoking was prohibited in some places, like movie theaters, subway stations, hospitals, educational institutions. But in the universities it was prohibited only to students. A professor could smoke during an oral exam, for example, and this was considered normal. People in the audience could smoke on a seminar, or other meeting or presentation.

Parents usually prohibited children to smoke, even if they smoked themselves. Children would smoke when their parents and teachers could not see them.

The harms and health risks of smoking were well-known, and there was some anti-smoking propaganda. But the habit was generally considered tolerable.

EDIT. An interesting detail: 1949 Geneva convention on the treatment of Prisoners of war, Article 26 says: "The use of tobacco shall be permitted."

Depriving POW's of tobacco considered cruel and inhuman in 1949. (I suppose this convention is still binding for the US Government:-)

Article 28 of the same convention says: "Canteens should be installed in all camps where prisoners of war may procure foodstuffs, soap and tobacco and ordinary articles in daily use."

Tobacco was considered a basic commodity, next to the food and soap...

The anti-smoking hysteria which we see now begins, according to my observations in the US in the early 90-s. Over the last two decades it spread all over the world. This is a phenomenon I cannot explain. And it comes from a country where people like to talk about personal freedom and tolerance so much.

It looks like it is heading to a complete prohibition, with all terrible consequences which we see now in the "war on drugs", and which we can see in the movies about alcohol prohibition era...

  • 1
    Less well-known in the US, if to be "known" you require actually believing the information you're given. In the 1950s and 1960s, Congress was holding hearings as to whether there was any link at all between tobacco and disease. So people "knew" in the sense that the Surgeon General had told them and it was true, but they didn't "know" in the sense of holding a true belief. Basically the tobacco industry made sure that it took 20+ years to confirm the discoveries. We can easily say now that the initial findings were correct, but not everyone knew they were. Commented May 15, 2015 at 19:30
  • Or to put it another way, one guy tells me the sky is blue and another guy tells me it's grey. If I can't go outside and take a look, or otherwise find grounds to tell them apart, I don't "know" the colour of the sky, even given that one of them is correct :-) Commented May 15, 2015 at 19:36
  • @Steve Jessop: In SU the situation was a little different: we did not have tobacco industry (in the sense you use in your message). Neither we had a congress:-) Everyone knew that smoking is bad for health. But there are millions other things which are bad for health and people do them.
    – Alex
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:09
  • 1
    could you explain me how exactly could tobacco industry suppress scientists in a society with freedom of speech? By intimidation? Blackmail? Yes, pretty much all of those. This is very well documented. There are too many newspaper articles to try to link to; a starting point is one of the many peer-reviewed publications, for example in here ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/…
    – iayork
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 19:04
  • 1
    As far as doctors endorsing cigarettes, I know of at least one doctor, a Yale pulmonary pathologist who said something like the link between disease and smoking was insufficiently strong for people to forgo the pleasures of smoking. (He may have meant that for himself -- anyway, a pretty powerful statement.)
    – Jeff
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 12:02

Smoking cigarettes in the U.S. became popular after world war one, when tobacco companies distributed cigarettes to soldiers. For instance, see Smoking in the United States Military. Rates of cigarette smoking rose substantially after WWI. This was a brilliant strategy, as troops are under stress and especially likely to become habituated to a stress-reliever like cigarette smoking. The link between smoking and lung cancer did was not found until the 1920s, and really not until the 1940/1950s. In addition, the pH level in cigarettes makes inhalation more likely as compared to pipe tobacco and cigars, see this and this.



  1. (From T.E.D.'s answer) In the 50's, above 40% of adult Americans smoked cigarettes.
  2. (From T.E.D.'s answer) Of smokers, about 70% smoked at least one pack a day.
  3. (From 2.) Conservatively, each smoker smoked in average 15 cigarettes a day.
  4. (From common knowledge) Adults are usually awake about 16 hours a day.
  5. (From personal experience) It takes about 8 minutes in average to smoke a cigarette.
  6. (From 3. and 4.) Each adult smoked a cigarette each 64 minutes.
  7. (From 5. and 6.) Each cigarette smoking adult spent about 1/8 of his awake time smoking.
  8. (From 1. and 7.) It could be expected that about 5% of adult Americans was smoking at any given time.

So, for any group of 20 adults, 1 would be smoking at any given time. But this is probably an undercalculation: people smoked more in certain situations than in others. Early in the morning, late in the evening, and mealtimes were circumstances of less consumption, and the middle of mornings and afternoons quite probably concentrated most smoking. Plus, as already discussed, men did smoke significantly more than women, and men are overrepresented in movies in general (don't know specifically if in Mad Men this is true, though, considering the title, it probably is).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.