NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Financially lucrative commercial collaborations between tobacco companies and major motion picture studios beginning in the late 1920s are responsible for the smoking imagery that was so prevalent in “classic” movies, investigators report in September issue of the BMJ specialist journal Tobacco Control.

However, nostalgia over smoking scenes in such movies as Casablanca, Now Voyager, and Dark Victory is restraining current efforts to modernize movie rating systems to exclude the depiction of smoking from films marketed to youth, co-author Dr. Stanton Glantz, at the University of California, San Francisco, told Reuters Health.

“Smoking in movies is the number one reason kids start to smoke,” Dr. Glantz noted.

“That’s why so many professional organizations — such as the American Medical Association, the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association — support changes to the rating system so that any onscreen smoking would trigger an R rating.”

“That action alone would cut youth exposure in half and prevent about 200,000 kids a year from starting to smoke,” he added.

Dr. Glantz and his colleagues obtained cigarette endorsement contracts with Hollywood stars and movie studios from internal tobacco industry documents at the UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library and the Jackler advertising collection at Stanford.

Between 1927 and 1951, nearly 200 movie actors promoted tobacco brands along with their movies.

The evidence shows that the major studios, which signed stars to inflexible contracts, negotiated cigarette ad deals, insisted on publicity for themselves and their latest films, and directly benefited from millions of dollars in tobacco advertising in newspapers, magazines, and nationwide radio campaigns.

“One justification for smoking in the movies is the fact that there was a lot of smoking in the golden age of Hollywood, and that smoking onscreen is part of the art of making films, something used from the beginning to create mood and develop character, and you see these iconic old movies being cited over and over again,” Dr. Glantz said.

“These old documents blow away that myth and show that it was not artistry but big business, involving huge amounts of money.”

More information about the campaign to give R ratings to movies in the US that depict smoking can be found at smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu. The corresponding ratings are “18” in the UK and “18A” in Canada.

Tobacco Control 2008;17:313-323.

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