Dr. Adam Goldstein, an associate professor of family medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, settled down with his family Sunday night to watch a television documentary about North Carolina’s “dependence on tobacco.”
It had been a long time coming. Goldstein, one of several public health leaders interviewed for the show, had been waiting more than a year to see it air on UNC-TV, the statewide public broadcasting network.
Originally scheduled to run in June 2002, the documentary was abruptly pulled from the station’s North Carolina Now news program six days before its broadcast date. UNC-TV officials say the decision was made to strengthen the show’s content, not water it down. But the move raised eyebrows among anti-smoking activists who were anxious to see just how hard-hitting a program about tobacco in the nation’s largest tobacco-producing state would be.
They were not reassured when the show reappeared on UNC-TV’s schedule under a new title: “North Carolina’s Addiction to Tobacco” had become “North Carolina’s Dependence on Tobacco.” Some public health leaders were also concerned because Miller Brewing Company–which was then owned by cigarette giant Philip Morris–was one of UNC-TV’s corporate sponsors at the time.
Station officials insist that big tobacco had no influence on the program. When asked at the time how UNC could persuade viewers that the show was not being altered to suit corporate backers, Steve Volstad, the station’s director of marketing and communications, said, “I don’t know if there is anything we could do before it airs. I think people will have to see it and come to their own conclusions.”
Goldstein was eager to do just that when he sat down to watch the show. During the first 10 minutes, as sun-dappled images of tobacco farms and tobacco-built institutions such as Duke University filled the screen, Goldstein says his 10-year-old son wondered aloud, “Why is this show promoting tobacco?”
But as the program went on and the focus shifted to public health issues, such as the state’s high incidence of teen smoking and historic lack of funding for prevention programs, Goldstein’s home audience warmed to the show. “I felt at the end, this is useful, this is good,” he says.
Lynette Tolson, director of advocacy for the American Heart Association in Raleigh, was pleased that the show cited studies linking higher cigarette taxes to lower rates of teen smoking. (At 5 cents a pack, North Carolina’s cigarette tax is now the third lowest in the nation). She also liked that the program made clear that the industry’s hold on the state’s economy is not what it used to be.
“Ten years ago, UNC-TV would never have shown this kind of documentary,” says Tolson, whose organization is part of a statewide coalition lobbying for higher cigarette taxes and stricter anti-smoking laws. “We’ve come a long way in our environment and how we think about tobacco. Still, we’ve got a long way to go.”
On that score, both she and Goldstein were critical of how little time the documentary spent on changes in cigarette manufacturing and marketing–especially to consumers in developing countries where rates of smoking are much higher than in the United States. And, despite mention of lawsuits filed against major U.S. cigarette manufacturers, they felt the documentary dealt far too kindly with big tobacco’s corporate and political track record.
“We act as if the Master Settlement Agreement [resulting from those lawsuits] occurred because it was a way of doing business,” says Goldstein. “The reality is that settlement came about because of lying, deceitful practices of the tobacco companies and what was basically a decades-long conspiracy” to hide the dangers of smoking from consumers.
And there are other holes. The show makes no mention of the tobacco buyout now being discussed by Congress, or recent layoffs at R.J. Reynolds. (Producers say there wasn’t time to include the latter).
State Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham), one of several lawmakers who’ve been pushing for higher cigarette taxes, noted the absence of any pro-tax legislators in the program when he watched on Sunday.
“The legislators they interviewed were all sympathetic to tobacco,” he says.
“A person who is not an avid follower of state politics would have no idea from watching the show that there was significant support in the last session for a 75-cent-a pack tax increase and some support for a 25-cent increase because of the health benefits.”
The show’s producer, Chip Muller, says he interviewed cigarette tax backers like state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange), though they did not appear in the program. He adds that it’s impossible to include all aspects of an issue in an hour-long TV documentary.
You have to make choices,” Muller says. “I felt like we told a good story. There are many others to tell.”
When asked about changes in the original program, Muller says the central message–the clash between the state’s cultural and economic ties to tobacco, and the disastrous health effects of smoking–remains the same. “What was added was more about tobacco’s history in the state–information that puts the current dispute into perspective,” he says. “I think the story is stronger because it’s more complete.”
As for why the show was pulled at the last minute after having been promoted by the station, Muller defers to management for comment. Volstad says senior managers wanted time to make the show more “comprehensive.” While he won’t go so far as to call the process a public relations mistake, he says a new policy prohibits shows from being added to the schedule until they are finalized and managers have had a chance to view them.
For those who missed it the first time, “North Carolina’s Dependence on Tobacco” will be broadcast on Oct. 4 at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.; Oct. 5 at 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Nov. 2 at 1 p.m.
What’s in a name?
Here’s how UNC-TV’s documentary on tobacco changed over time. Descriptions are from the station’s Web site, www.unctv.org:
Original description, 2002: “North Carolina’s Addiction to Tobacco,” a North Carolina Now special, examines some of the hardships that tobacco farmers face, the debate over legislating nonsmoking requirements in public places, and research being conducted by two North Carolina tobacco companies on a “safe” cigarette and the arguments over its release.
Current description, 2003: “North Carolina’s Dependence on Tobacco” traces tobacco’s history from its Native American roots and its growth to an economic giant to the present dispute over its value versus its human cost. This program examines attitudes towards the tobacco industry and legislation from all sides–farmers, doctors, health advocates, and state lawmakers.