Background The purpose of this study was to identify and describe the knowledge and attitudes of cigarette smoking that are associated with smoking habits among young military conscripts in Taiwan. Methods We conducted a cross-sectional survey of young conscripts in southern and eastern Taiwan between August 1 and December 31, 2001. We selected 3,249 young military conscripts who had served more than 1 month in the military, based on specific criteria. We used a standard structured questionnaire to collect information about the respondents' sociodemographic characteristics, lifestyle, knowledge, attitude, and cigarette smoking practices. Results Our findings showed that among smoking young military conscripts, knowledge about smoking was lower and attitudes toward smoking were more negative when compared with the non-smokers. Knowledge and attitudes about smoking varied with sociodemographic characteristics (age, education level, residential area) and lifestyle (cigarette smoking, betel nut chewing, alcohol drinking), all p < 0.05. Subjects with greater knowledge about smoking had a lower risk of smoking (odds ratio, 0.88; 95% confidence interval, 0.86–0.91). But this characteristic diminished after being adjusted for potential confounders. In addition, subjects with a higher attitude score about smoking had relatively lower risk for cigarette smoking when compared to those with a lower attitude score, even after adjusting for potential confounders (odds ratio, 0.93; 95% confidence interval, 0.91–0.94). Conclusion Knowledge and attitudes about smoking are significantly associated with the status of cigarette smoking. These findings can help public health professionals develop effective policies and smoking prevention and cessation programs among young military conscripts in Taiwan.