Tobacco firms paid huge amounts for endorsements from the stars of Hollywood's "Golden Age".
Industry documents released following anti-smoking lawsuits reveal the extent of the relationship between tobacco and movie studios.
One firm paid more than $3m in today's money in one year to stars.
Researchers writing in the Tobacco Control journal said "classic" films of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s still helped promote smoking today.
Virtually all of the biggest names of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were involved in paid cigarette promotion, according to the University of California at San Francisco researchers.
They obtained endorsement contracts signed at the times to help them calculate just how much money was involved.
According to the research, stars prepared to endorse tobacco included Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Bette Davis and Betty Grable.
Deals dated from the start of the "talkie" era, with "Jazz Singer" star Al Jolson signing testimonials stating that the "Lucky Strike" brand was "the cigarette of the acting profession".
"The good old flavor of Luckies is as sweet and soothing as the best 'Mammy' song ever written," he wrote.
One of the key documents uncovered by the researchers was a list of payments for a single year in the late 1930s detailing how much stars were paid by American Tobacco, the makers of Lucky Strike.
Leading ladies Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck and Myrna Loy were handed $10,000, equivalent to just under $150,000 in today's money, to endorse the brand, as were Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor.
Together, the annual price of paying actors was $3.2m in 2008 terms.
In some cases, tobacco firms would pay movie studios to create radio shows which featured their stars' endorsements.
American Tobacco paid Warner Brothers the equivalent of $13.7m for 1937's "Your Hollywood Parade", and sponsored The Jack Benny Show from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s.
The latter featured stars such as Lauren Bacall giving carefully scripted testimonials.
The researchers, led by Professor Stanton Glantz, said that the effects of the millions poured into Hollywood by "Big Tobacco" could still be felt today, despite a recent self-imposed ban on promotion within films.
They say that smoking imagery in films can influence younger people to start smoking.
They wrote: "As in the 1930s, nothing today prevents the global tobacco industry from influencing the film industry in any number of ways."
"Classic" films with smoking scenes, such as "Casablanca" and "Now, Voyager", and glamorous publicity images helped to "perpetuate public tolerance" of on-screen smoking, they said.
UK anti-smoking group ASH said that while smoking imagery could not be "outlawed completely", there was an argument for clearer warnings before films.
STARS PAID TO PROMOTE LUCKY STRIKE - 1937/8
Actor US$ paid (2008 equivalent)
Gary Cooper 10,000 (146,583)
Joan Crawford 10,000 (146,583)
Henry Fonda 3,000 (43,975)
Clark Gable 10,000 (146,583)
Bob Hope 2,500 (36,646)
Gertrude Lawrence 1,750 (25,652)
Carole Lombard 10,000 (146,583)
Myrna Loy 10,000 (146,583)
Fred MacMurray 6,000 (87,950)
Ray Milland 2,000 (29,317)
George Raft 3,000 (43,975)
Edward Robinson 3,000 (43,975)
Barbara Stanwyck 10,000 (146,583)
Gloria Swanson 1,500 (21,988)
Robert Taylor 10,000 (146,583)
Spencer Tracy 10,000 (146,583)
Source: Tobacco Control 2008