Objective: Smoking in movies is associated with adolescent and young adult smoking initiation. Public health efforts to eliminate smoking from films accessible to youth have been countered by defenders of the status quo, who associate tobacco imagery in "classic" movies with artistry and nostalgia. The present work explores the mutually beneficial commercial collaborations between the tobacco companies and major motion picture studios from the late 1920s through the 1940s.
Methods: Cigarette endorsement contracts with Hollywood stars and movie studios were obtained from internal tobacco industry documents at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Legacy Tobacco Documents Library and the Jackler advertising collection at Stanford.
Results: Cigarette advertising campaigns that included Hollywood endorsements appeared from 1927 to 1951, with major activity in 1931-2 and 1937-8 for American Tobacco Company's Lucky Strike, and in the late 1940s for Liggett & Myers' Chesterfield. Endorsement contracts and communication between American Tobacco and movie stars and studios explicitly reveal the cross-promotional value of the campaigns. American Tobacco paid movie stars who endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes US$218,750 in 1937-8 (equivalent to US$3.2 million in 2008) for their testimonials.
Conclusions: Hollywood endorsements in cigarette advertising afforded motion picture studios nationwide publicity supported by the tobacco industry's multimillion US dollar advertising budgets. Cross-promotion was the incentive that led to a synergistic relationship between the US tobacco and motion picture industries, whose artefacts, including "classic" films with smoking and glamorous publicity images with cigarettes, continue to perpetuate public tolerance of onscreen smoking. Market-based disincentives within the film industry may be a solution to decouple the historical association between Hollywood films and cigarettes.