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Smoke Signals 2 

Anti-smoking activists who've been eagerly awaiting broadcast of a UNC-TV program called "North Carolina's Addiction to Tobacco" will have to wait a little longer.

The show, which was supposed to air in June as part of the station's regular news show North Carolina Now, won't air until January because officials say that's the earliest slot available for locally-produced programming.

"That program is essentially ready to go," says Steve Volstad, director of marketing and communications for UNC-TV. "But we don't have that many slots where we can put in local programming. We've had a lot of local programming lately in conjunction with The Civil War and the series itself took up a chunk of time. In early November, we've got a lot of elections coverage." As a result, Volstad says there won't be time to air the tobacco program until early next year at the earliest.

Hmmmmm, say health-care activists who are already suspicious about the delay. After all, tobacco giant Philip Morris owns Miller Brewing Company, which is one of UNC-TV's leading corporate sponsors. Could it be that the tobacco company wasn't pleased by the idea of a show the station's online programming guide promised would explore "the debate over legislating nonsmoking requirements in public places," and arguments over the release of a "safe" cigarette now being researched by tobacco companies?

"We were encouraged that such an informative program was coming out and then concerned when it disappeared after being widely publicized," says Peg O'Connell, chair of the board of N.C. Prevention Partners, a statewide health advocacy group. "I would hate to think that UNC's journalistic integrity would be infected by one particular industry."

Station officials were incensed when an item in The Independent aired similar worries (See "Smoke Signals," July 3, 2002). "May we suggest that everyone at least wait and see if the program runs and if it deals directly with the issues before concluding that Something Awful has happened?" Volstad wrote in a letter to the editor. (See "Back Talk" July 17, 2002).

In the interim, one thing that has happened is that the show's title has been changed to "North Carolina's Dependence on Tobacco" And the program now spends more time on economic issues related to the tobacco industry's decline than the original cut--among other "tweaks" (Volstad's word).

The show was produced with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which gave grants to help public stations localize issues raised by a previous Nova program about "safe" cigarettes. Volstad says those issues include health, and he adds that accepting the grant "obligates" his station to air the tobacco program.

But as for what assurances viewers have that the show they'll eventually see hasn't been cut to suit corporate backers, "I don't know if there is anything I could do or we could do before it airs," Volstad says. "I think people will have to see it and come to their own conclusions."

Air dates for January's UNC-TV shows should be finalized by mid-November.

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