How Hollywood celebs pushed cigarette smoking. Mel Gibson, Goldie Hawn, and... Shelley Winters? Ty Burr reflects on the new revelations about how tobacco companies seduced tinseltown's stars
Mel Gibson, Lethal Weapon
Credit: Mel Gibson: Everett Collection

How Hollywood celebs pushed cigarette smoking

Let’s say it’s 1980. You’re a massively powerful cigarette company looking to hook a new generation on tobacco and keep those profits coming. You get your Hollywood-based PR mavens on the case and they come up with the brilliant idea of sending free cartons of cigarettes to certain movie stars on a regular basis, on the theory that if they smoke your brand in private, the butts will eventually work their way in front of a camera.

So who do you approach? Which hot celebs of the moment do you choose to brainwash America’s youth? How about… Jerry Lewis, Liv Ullman, Rex Reed, and Shelley Winters?

That’s one of the slightly damp revelations in a report published in the British-based health quarterly Tobacco Control entitled ”How the Tobacco Industry Built It’s Relationship with Hollywood.” The report, written by two California-based health professionals and available for download, is based on an analysis of over 1,500 in-house documents from Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, Lorillard, and other tobacco giants. There are (pardon the expression) smoking guns contained within, but they mostly apply to the 1980s, before the industry voluntarily banned paid placement of its own products in movies and on TV. (They found other methods in the 1990s, but more about that later). And they suggest that the smoking industry’s idea of who and what was hip stopped somewhere short of the Rat Pack.

Sending Jerry Lewis free cigarettes? That’s really going to bring the kids around. (Hey, does he still do that funny thing with the chopsticks?) Nevertheless, this is what RJ Reynolds had its marketing firm, Rogers & Cowan, do in 1980. They targeted TV, too, and occasionally, according to the memos, had stunning successes: ”During the last few days we have been able to get Zsa Zsa Gabor and Harold Robbins to smoke during the taping of ‘The Merv Griffin Show.”’ It makes you wonder why they just didn’t pull an RJR truck up to the Motion Picture Retirement Home and unload.

Still, some of the findings are, shall we say, disillusioning. ”We also received additional thank you calls for the product,” goes one memo. ”One from John Cassavetes (and wife Gena Rowlands) came with the assurance that he will use our product in his next film.” The godfather of indie film — a sell-out to the Man? Remind me to watch ”Love Streams” again to check for Winstons.

There’s evidence in the report that the tobacco companies had become less clueless by the end of the decade. A 1989 Philip Morris marketing plan is quoted at length, and for good reason — it’s incredibly creepy. ”We believe that most of the strong, positive images for cigarettes and smoking are created by cinema and television,” it begins. ”We have seen the heroes smoking in ‘Wall Street,’ ‘Crocodile Dundee,’ and ‘Roger Rabbit.”’ Mickey Rourke, Mel Gibson, and Goldie Hawn are forever seen, both on and off the screen, with a lighted cigarette…. If branded cigarette advertising is to take full advantage of these images, it has to do more than simply achieve package recognition — it has to feed off and exploit the image source.”

Sound like Darth Vader rallying the troops? Washington thought so, too; after Congressional hearings that same year, the industry agreed to stop paid placement in movies. Which only meant that providing free smokes, logo-emblazoned props, and other swag was still kosher. Not surprisingly, according to the report, tobacco use in films rose substantially after 1990 (although positive and negative portrayals of smokers aren’t distinguished between). In 1998, tobacco companies were enjoined from placement activities entirely.

The report’s authors suggest several fixes. Some of them are dumb. (A tobacco-use rating for movies? Please.) Some of them are more enlightened: An anti-smoking campaign pitched directly at filmmakers and actors would, in fact, be a sensible first step toward keeping Hollywood from tapping into smoking’s rebellious aura — an aura that itself comes from decades of tobacco advertising and movie mythologizing. What would Humphrey Bogart be without a cigarette dangling from his disenchanted lips? Well, alive for one thing: He died of throat cancer at 57.