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John Curtin and smoking in World War II

John Curtin, like many men of his era, was a smoker.

A silver cigarette box was presented to departing editor John Curtin by the staff of the Westralian Worker in 1928. According to Elsie Curtin, the box was one of her husband’s ‘most treasured possessions and he always cleaned it himself’. He kept it at home, well stocked with cigarettes. [1]

John Curtin was a heavy smoker, at times a chain smoker, and his son, John Francis Curtin, recalled that their home ‘always had plenty of ash trays… He liked his cigarettes. He didn’t do the drawback, so it was a pretty waste of good cigarettes… I remember he smoked Country Life. He smoked Capstan in the early days, State Express. I can remember all his brands’. [2]

A newspaper article from the Sydney Sun of 10 May 1942 revealed that the Prime Minister was affected by war time tobacco shortages just like any other smoker:

Finding it just as difficult as any other Australian to make his cigarette-ends meet is chain-smoking Prime Minister John Curtin. Yet at a Press conference last week with a burst of generosity, pure Socialism, or what-you-will, he produced from a locked drawer his ‘hoard’ – three small packets of a popular brand and offered to ‘loan’ a packet to anybody left without cigarettes for the weekend. The Prime Minister’s Press secretary, Don Rodgers, promptly borrowed two packets, then spent all his spare time scouring cigarette starved Canberra to replace them. [3]

Curtin’s generosity prompted an anonymous reader of the Sunday Sun to send two packets of cigarettes to the prime minister.

‘I admire you and your work for this country, which I have come to love, too. I am 53, an unhappy bachelor, who can do nothing for his country, being medically unfit. So when I read the article I thought I might just help you out, as it is absolutely no sacrifice to me. I hope you’ll enjoy them.’ [4]

Suffering from a heart condition, John Curtin did eventually give up smoking in 1944. His secretary, Gladys Joyce, recalled:

I was visiting him in the Mercy Hospital when he was ill and that’s how I knew he smoked 40 cigarettes a day because he said, “They’ve cut me down to 12, Glad,” and he said, “I’m sitting there and I’m watching the time and I thought I can’t stand this and I cut it right out.” And he stopped smoking. And he said to me at the time, “I know I could be a pensioner and live on, but that’s not my way of life.” And he went back to work at the House and he didn’t last long at all. [5]

During World War 2 an increasing number of women joined the workforce. The new financial and social freedom women now enjoyed encouraged many to increase their smoking or to take up smoking for the first time. By the end of the war more than a quarter of all Australian women smoked. [6]

Mass produced cigarettes were supplied to the troops serving in the trenches in World War 1. As a result, many men who had previously ‘rolled their own’, became converts to ready made cigarettes. World War 2 led to further increases in smoking rates with almost three quarters of all adult males smoking by 1945. [6]

Tobacco was rationed during World War 2 by limiting production. Retailers were supplied on the basis of quotas. From mid-1942 quotas were reduced by 25% with a further 5% reduction in late 1943. A heavy smoker would try to get himself placed on a ‘list’ with a publican, shopkeeper, newsagent, hairdresser or the like. At the beginning of each month the smoker would have a busy few days picking up a packet of cigarettes from the hairdresser, another from the newsagent and so on. The ‘price’ of being on the list was regular custom. [7]

Cigarette advertisements from the 1940s encouraged men and women to buy tobacco products with no sign of the health warnings we now take for granted. In contrast, a government advertisement for the £100,000,000 Austerity Loan exhorted men to reduce their smokes and support the war effort with the words ‘It’s on the little things that you can save, fella!’

In 1942 Curtin’s government launched an ‘austerity campaign’ to divert as many of the nation’s resources as possible to the war effort. Rationing of clothing and food was introduced to ensure that everyone had access to scarce goods.


1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Woman magazine. The Curtin Story by Elsie Curtin, part 3, Woman 26 March 1951. JCPML00577/3.

2. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Interview of John Francis Curtin, March-April 2004. Part 2. JCPML00855/1.

3. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. John Curtin had three packets. Sydney [Sunday] Sun, 10 May 1942. JCPML00964/64.

4. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. Two packets for the Prime Minister. Sunday Sun, 17 May 1942. JCPML00964/65.

5. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Interview of Gladys Joyce, 3 July 1997. JCPML00210/1.

6. Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [eds]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and Issues. Third Edition. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2008. Available from:

7. Hasluck, P. (1970). The Government and the People 1942 – 1945. Australian War Memorial , Canberra, p. 275.