Study reveals secret tobacco industry deals with Hollywood

Courtesy of Robert Jackler

Gary Cooper was one of many Hollywood stars involved in the marketing deals between the tobacco industry and movie studios.

Remember the glamour days of smoking when Bogie and Bacall puffed their way into Hollywood legend? When images of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, cigarette in hand, symbolized virility? And Joan Crawford lighting a cigarette was the epitome of elegance?

Today's movie industry still draws on those images to justify smoking in movies—even as public health experts call for smoking to be eliminated from youth-rated films. Last month the National Cancer Institute concluded that on-screen smoking causes youth to start smoking

"We're told smoking is part of Hollywood's history and a necessary artistic device," said Stanton Glantz, PhD, professor of medicine at UC-San Francisco and an author of a new study that "debunks the myth" that smoking in movies simply reflected the tastes at the time. "Our work further strengthens the case for getting smoking out of youth-rated films by rating new smoking movies 'R.'"

Glantz and Robert Jackler, MD, professor and chair of otolaryngology at the Stanford School of Medicine, along with other researchers, used once-secret tobacco industry documents to trace Hollywood-tobacco marketing deals to the early days of movie making, including Al Jolson in the silent film era. The study titled, "Big Tobacco in Hollywood, 1927-1951," was published Sept. 24 online in the journal Tobacco Control.

"Commercial arrangements between the movie industry and tobacco companies were there from the very beginning," said Glantz, director of UCSF's Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

In the school's Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Kristen Lum a UCSF medical student and lead author of the study, uncovered financial contracts between tobacco companies and Hollywood stars to endorse specific cigarette brands. (Today such deals would be worth millions of dollars.) The resulting cigarette ads feature stars under contract to major film studios, usually plugging their latest films and the studios that released them. Studios timed the ads to appear as films opened across the country. "The (Hollywood) studio system used tobacco advertising to sell its movies," said Jackler, the Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professor in Otorhinolaryngology at Stanford. "The tobacco industry used Hollywood to sell its brands and reassure a worried public that smoking was not harmful."

The idea for the study was sparked in part by Jackler's collection of thousands of historical cigarette ads from 1927 to 1954 that appeared in such magazines as Life and The Saturday Evening Post. The ads, exhibited online at, are from the campaign by the tobacco industry to hide the hazards of smoking. A traveling collection of the exhibit, "Not a Cough in a Carload," will be at the New York Public Library at 188 Madison Ave. in Manhattan from Oct. 7 until Dec. 26.

In addition to presenting doctors, nurses, athletes and even Santa Claus promoting the health benefits of smoking, a number of the ads show film stars both as enthusiastic partakers and eager endorsers of specific brands. Some stars, such as Claudette Colbert, endorsed as many as five different brands over their careers.

"Chesterfields are so mild they leave a clean fresh taste in my mouth," one ad states with an image of a smiling Kirk Douglas lighting a Chesterfield. "Claudette Colbert tells how the throat-strain of emotional acting led her to Luckies," announces another ad next to an image of a sultry, long-lashed Colbert, cigarette in hand. "Mrs. Humphrey Bogart says, 'I love to see a man smoke a Cigarillo,'" states a third with an image of Bogart and Lauren Bacall relaxing on a sailboat.

But the key to uncovering the commercial link between the movie and tobacco industries was the discovery of the contracts, said Lum. "The contracts were the documents that really drove this research," Lum said. "The actual advertisements were the end product of a very well-thought-out commercial/PR endeavor for the tobacco industry." The study was supported in part by a grant from the National Cancer Institute.