Old Hollywood & Big Tobacco

Stars, Studios Cut Secret Deals to Sell Cigarettes

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 24, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Vintage tobacco ad with Ronald ReaganSept. 24, 2008 -- What did the Hollywood studio head say to the cigarette? Stick with me, baby, and I’ll make you a star.

That seems to have been the sentiment behind deals cut from 1951 and earlier with movie moguls, stars, and the big tobacco companies of the day.

Researchers have unearthed contracts between big tobacco companies and Hollywood movie studios and stars who endorsed certain brands of cigarettes.

The research was led by the University of California-San Francisco’s Stanton Glantz, PhD. Glantz is director of the university’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

In a news release, Glantz says, “We’re told smoking is part of Hollywood’s history and a necessary artistic device.”

However, he adds the findings put to rest the idea that smoking on film solely showed what U.S. culture was doing at the time.

"Our work further strengthens the case for getting smoking out of youth-rated films by rating new smoking movies 'R.'"

"Commercial arrangements between the movie industry and tobacco companies were there from the very beginning," he says.

Another study author, Kristen Lum, says in a news release that although researchers looked over print ads of stars and even doctors promoting cigarettes, key pieces of information were in the contracts.

"The contracts were the documents that really drove this research. The actual advertisements were the end product of a very well-thought-out commercial/PR endeavor for the tobacco industry. Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, all the big names were there."

Here are some nuggets of information gleaned from the contracts:

  • American tobacco and studio heads wrote about a campaign of “cross-promoting” movies and cigarettes.
  • Movie stars who endorsed Lucky Strikes cigarettes in 1937 were paid $218,750. Researchers say that is equivalent to $3 million in today’s dollar amount.
  • Cigarette ad campaigns linking Hollywood endorsements showed “major activity” during 1931-1932 and 1937-1938.

Public health officials have called for no smoking to be shown in films that are geared to young audiences.

The study is published online in the journal Tobacco Control. Research was partly funded by the National Cancer Institute.

Show Sources


Glantz, S., Tobacco Control, published online Sept. 24, 2008.

News release, University of California-San Francisco.

Collection of Stanford University (

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