Smoking, both inside and outside the military, is a habit of many. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 40 million adults in the US smoke cigarettes as of 2021. Smokers also have this superstitious practice of flipping one cigarette upside down and saving it for last. That last cigarette is called the “lucky cigarette.”

That One Lucky Cigarette

It doesn’t matter what you believe in life, but consuming your lucky cigarette before the other ones is considered unlucky when it comes to smoking. We’re not 100% sure where this belief came from, although there had been some speculations that it started with the soldiers of WWII. Where else could weird beliefs start, but in the military? It’s just like the belief that eating Charms Candy will bring you all the bad luck.

Tobacco Ration To Boost Morale

Scientific data on smoking’s health risks and impact on troop readiness led to the removal of cigarettes from K-rations and C-rations in 1975. But when World War I started, the number of smokers in the military drastically increased, as it became one means to boost their morale, increase alertness on watch, and even suppress the appetite between meals.

Lucky Strike advertisement, 1916.
Lucky Strike advertisement, 1916. ©The Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society

As General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander-in-chief of the American forces in France in 1917, said that time, “You ask me what we need to win this war. I answer tobacco as much as bullets. Tobacco is as indispensable as the daily ration; we must have thousands of tons without delay.” Thus, the military sent soldiers a ration of 50 cigarettes every week.

The government should have already known this. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress had its hands full, supplying George Washington and his army.  Supplied would come into him sporadically and piecemeal. He would get winter coats, but no hats, musket balls, but no gunpowder. Washington asked for money to be able to buy supplies himself, but that, too, was in short supply.  In exasperation, Washington finally wrote to Congress saying, “If you can’t send money, just send tobacco,” knowing that he could barter for anything else he needed with the brown leaf.

“Bull” Durham Smoking Tobacco advertisement, 1918
“Bull” Durham Smoking Tobacco advertisement, 1918. ©The Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society

A Tradition Is Born

Tobacco advertisements boomed. The most popular cigarette brands were “Bull” Durham, Chesterfield, and Lucky Strike. And so, the culture of wartime smoking continued until WWII.

Whenever the troops sent to Europe or the Pacific would smoke their Lucky Strike, they would flip all of the cigarettes inside the pack except for one. Smoking the flipped cigarette caused the brand stamp on the paper to burn first. In that way, a discarded cigarette butt wouldn’t tell the enemy the country of origin of the smoker. As for the last unflipped one, well, if you lived long enough to smoke your way through an entire pack, that last flipped cigarette was your lucky one. 

Other theories said the practice started during Vietnam War. At this time, filters for cigarettes were becoming a thing as an initiative to reduce tar and nicotine yields. Cigarettes could only be smoked one way because of that. The practice changed a bit, and the soldiers would only flip one instead. But, the belief is still there: if you live long enough, then you’d be fortunate to smoke your “lucky cigarette.”