Hollywood stars are still smoking cigarette in blockbuster movies despite a voluntary ban on promotion agreed with the tobacco industry a decade ago, a study has shown.

Hollywood stars are still smoking cigarette in blockbuster movies despite a voluntary ban on promotion agreed with the tobacco industry a decade ago, a study has shown.

Comparison of movies made since 1989, when the ban was agreed, with those made before that date reveal an 11-fold increase in the proportion of films where actors smoked named cigarette brands, from 1 per cent to 11 per cent.

Leading actors shown smoking include Julia Roberts, who pulls a pack of Marlboros out of her purse and lights up in My Best Friend's Wedding, Clint Eastwood, who offers a Camel to Meryl Streep in Bridges of Madison County and Bruce Willis, who smokes Marlboro in The Last Boy Scout.

Overall, 85 per cent of the films studied featured smoking, while cigarette brands were displayed in 28 per cent of films, about the same proportion as before the ban. Anti-smoking campaigners say that for young audiences the association of cigarette brands with role models is a powerful incentive to smoke that brand.

The practice of product placement of cigarettes in the movies, where a named brand is handled or used by the movie's stars, is a form of promotion that can reach a global audience of tens of millions. In the 1980s, tobacco companies spent millions of dollars to ensure their products were prominently placed.

In one deal, Brown and Williamson, the manufacturer of Lucky Strike, agreed to pay $500,000 to Sylvester Stallone for smoking its cigarettes in five movies, including Rocky IV and Rhinestone.

In 1989 tobacco firms publicly ended direct financial payments for brand placement in films. Article seven of their marketing procedure reads: "No payment, direct or indirect, shall be made for the placement of our cigarettes or cigarette advertisements in any film produced for viewing by the general public."

However, investigators from the Norris Cotton Cancer Centre in Lebanon, New Hampshire, who watched the top 25 American box office films for each year from 1988 to 1997 were "unable to identify a downward trend in the frequency of tobacco brand appearances in films" since the ban was agreed. James Sargent, who led the study, said he did not know whether the film producers or the stars depicted handling cigarettes had been paid for doing so.

"It is hard to imagine why the movie companies are displaying these products without some quid pro quo. If it were a can of Coke I would say that was advertising. Why should it be different if it is a pack of cigarettes?"

A more general restriction on marketing practices, including a ban on advertising in films, was introduced in 1998 through the Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco companies under which they agreed to pay $25bn compensation over 25 years for the harm caused by smoking.

Dr Sargent said the placement of cigarettes in films could be a means for the tobacco companies to avoid national advertising bans because the movies were a global business. Almost half the total revenue of the films studied came from outside America. "They cross international boundaries and reach a huge audience. That is what is appealing to the tobacco companies."

The study found brand appearances were almost as common in films for adolescent audiences as in films for adult audiences (32 per cent compared with 35 per cent), and were present in 20 per cent of those rated for children.

Dr Sargent said: "The 1989 agreement was a voluntary agreement and it obviously has not worked. I don't think it is going to work. I think it needs to be regulated. Any actor cigarette endorsement in US films made after 1998 should be investigated to determine if it violates the Master Settlement Agreement, which precludes tobacco advertising in films."

BAT, the parent company of Brown and Williamson, said it had not been involved in product placement for a long time.

The Tobacco Manufacturers' Assocation said: "We can speak with confidence - it does not happen with British film companies."

A spokeswoman for Ash, the British anti-smoking pressure group, said the voluntary agreement restricting advertising by tobacco companies in the UK did not apply to films. "We know film companies were taking money to place cigarettes before and it seems quite feasible that it is still going on." She added: "If an actor who is a role model for the young is shown smoking, that is going to have significant impact on a young audience."