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Smoking in movies rooted in studio-era deals

September 25, 2008 | 11:35 am

Wayne1The Hollywood A-listers of the 1930s and 1940s helped pave the way for smoking in the movies that continues today, according to a study of endorsement contracts between the studios and tobacco companies and advertisements from that era.

Researchers at Stanford and at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco examined records from the UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library and the Jackler advertising collection at Stanford. During the '30s and '40s, two-thirds of the top 50 box office stars in Hollywood endorsed tobacco brands for advertising purposes and were paid a lot to do so, the study found. In return for the paid testimonials of their stars, the major studies benefited from ads for their movies in lucrative "cross over" deals, paid for by the tobacco companies, the research shows. Actors Clark Gable, Spencer Tracey, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Bette Davis and Betty Grable all appeared in advertisements for such brands as Lucky Strike, Old Gold, Chesterfield and Camel.

Movie industry executives claim the right of artistic freedom and often say that smoking is part of character development or the need to create a realistic scene. But the exploration of the early studio-era contracts suggests that smoking in the movies was a mutually beneficial business deal with effects that linger today, said Dr. Stanton Glantz, the lead author of the paper, which is published today in the journal Tobacco Control.

"People say smoking is part of filmmaking. It creates characters and mood. But our paper showed this was all business. Some of the people in those ads didn't even smoke. But one side effect it had was it completely embedded smoking into the culture of Hollywood. This cultural connection drives smoking in film," he said.

Research, including a new report from the National Cancer Institute, indicates that smoking in movies influences children and teens to smoke. "It is the most important stimulus for youth smoking -- even more powerful that cigarette advertising," said Glantz. Public health officials have implored the Motion Picture Assn. of America to identify smoking in the movies just as it would violence or bad language and apply tougher ratings to those movies. But in an interview with The Times, Glantz said the MPAA's actions so far have had little effect. Movies with smoking should be treated similarly to those that use a common, vulgar obscenity and should earn an R rating, he said. Removing smoking in movies accessible to children and teens would reduce youth smoking by 50%, said Glantz, a professor of medicine at UCSF.

For more information on the studio-era smoking deals, see the Stanford smoking advertising archives.

  -- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Courtesy of Stanford University

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