Once-secret tobacco industry documents show that American Tobacco, Reynolds, Liggett & Myers and other majors of the time paid lavish sums to A-list stars to endorse cigarette brands in newspaper advertisements, it said.
Almost 200 stars, including two-thirds of the Top 50 box-office actors from the late 1930s and 1940s, took part in the campaigns, praising brands for taste or smoothness, for providing relaxation on a movie set or -- as in the case of John Wayne, who eventually died of cancer -- helping the actor's voice.
In 1937-38 alone, just one company, American Tobacco, paid stars 218,750 dollars, or 3.2 million dollars in today's values, to promote a single brand, Lucky Strike.
The testimonials were often timed to the launch of a new movie, which was mentioned in the ad in the same way that fast-food chains and soft-drinks companies today tie in their product with a blockbuster film.
The contracts were part of a massive strategy that ran for nearly a quarter of a century, aiming in particular at making smoking a sign of virility among young men and a symbol of femininity and freedom among young women, it said.
The document trail stretches from 1927 -- starting with a push by Al Jolson of "The Jazz Singer" fame -- to 1951, when TV replaced cinema as the best promotional vehicle.
The research appears in a British-published journal, Tobacco Control.
"Commercial arrangements between the movie industry and tobacco companies were there from the very beginning," said co-author Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco.
In addition to the endorsements by stars in ad campaigns, the tobacco underwrote the advertising budgets for new movies and sponsored radio broadcasts, often using Hollywood talent to plug cigarettes.
Some of the radio programmes were a "hard sell," the study said.
In one documented case, the Lucky Strike name or jingle occurred 268 times in 135 minutes of broadcast time, the equivalent of once every 30 seconds when averaged out.
Fellow author Robert Jackler, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said the covert deals benefitted both the tobacco industry and big studios, as well as individual stars.
"The studio system used tobacco advertising to sell its movies (while) the tobacco industry used Hollywood to sell its brands and reassure a worried public that smoking was not harmful."
Glantz and Jackler say the impact of cigarette use by "Golden Age" directors lingers today, with on-screen scenes that include smoking and are defended by Hollywood as necessary artistic devices.
Piecemeal evidence about the dangers of smoking coalesced in the early 1950s, culminating in a landmark investigation in 1954 by Britain's Richard Doll that linked tobacco use with lung cancer.