Dissing the tobacco industry seems passé these days. The CEOs, exhausted from their conga line in front of Congress, have a yellowish ’50s patina. For advertising deconstructionists, once Joe Camel’s nose was fully exposed, everything else felt like the morning after. There’s just no artistry left in anti-smoking activism.

Besides, smoking in the United States is down a bit, from 23 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2005. We have so many other things to be terrified over and outraged aboutcarbon footprints and Katrina, Iraq and eavesdropping.

Perhaps that’s why The News & Observer‘s public editor Ted Vaden appeared surprised when several angry readers questioned the newspaper’s judgment in running a full-page color ad for KOOL XLs in its “What’s up” tabloid on Aug. 17.

So what’s up, really? Worldwide tobacco-related deaths: 5 million a year, with the World Health Organization anticipating 10 million annually by 2020. China, here we come. A mere sliver of those numbers represents North Carolinians: 11,500. See? No artistry in death. Just boring numbers.

What’s down, really down, is newspaper advertising in the United Statestobacco spent a paltry $1.6 million to buy space in 2005. As Vaden noted, tobacco companies have “shunned” newspapers lately. He sounded slightly miffedbeing shunned, like inhaling passive smoke, is no fun. Apparently The N&O hadn’t been invited for a while to get down with R.J. To say nothing of Philip.

But that changed in the past few weeks, and The N&O has been running ads for KOOL cigarettes. “Smoother. Wider. Different.” Say that slow and easy. The old tricks are apparently still the best way to turn tobacco. One full-page ad played right next to a special feature section on surviving collegewhich you apparently do by dressing well and flirting. And smoking? Hey, college kids, do I have a great survival tip for you!

“What’s up” has also been running ads for Camel Snusa phlegmy-sounding nicotine-delivery system that’s both spitless and smokeless. My shyness has prevented me from approaching the R.J. Reynolds admen with my ideas for their edgy, and yes indeedy, youth-oriented campaign. “You Snus? You lose. But only your gums and teeth! Maybe your heart … stay tuned for more on that. But your lungs will be copasetic!”

North Carolina college kids can also rest assured that even if they don’t end up sucking a spicy packet of Snus or a KOOL XL, they can still get a nice hit to their systems any time they walk onto campus. That’s because there’s no shunning happening between big tobacco and North Carolina universitiesespecially at my own institution, N.C. State. So we’re no Duke University, founded with a tobacco fortune. But we’re doing our best to make up for it. We’re the public university that now ranks third in the nation for corporate funding. And we love tobacco most of all. I’m sorry to say that if we started pulling out tobacco bricks from our edifice, the walls might come tumbling down. Although I’d urge us, nonetheless, to think about iteven as an unfunded thought experiment.

We have tobacco genomes and endowed professorships. We have scholarships and nonprofit foundations spiked with industry reps. We have awards and grants. A Philip Morris USA representative told College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students last September, “We’re watching you.” No one shuddered visibly. Everyone beamed. Money can’t buy such great PR. Oh, wait, it can. That only cost $250,000. As the tobacco rep went on to explain: “What we do at N.C. State is an allocation of resourcesa good investment from our perspective.”

You bet it is. Big tobacco wisely allocates and invests all over the place. For instance, in gays and lesbians and the homeless. R.J. Reynolds code-named one project SCUM (Sub-Culture Urban Marketing). That was an allocation to gay men and the homeless in San Francisco. African Americans in poor urban areas are a good investment as well; they’ve been bombarded with tobacco advertising while N.C. State has been anointed with scholarships and research grants. A just-released University of Pittsburgh study shows that there are 2.6 times more pro-tobacco ads in African-American neighborhoods. The industry also poured money into African-American leadership organizations. The result? More goodwill. More tobacco users. More illness and death.

From N.C. State to the NAACP, universities and nonprofits get paid to help rob Peter and Pauline of their lungs and teeth and gums. Craven, but there’s no raving going on. North Carolina professors, with a couple of exceptions, are remarkably silent about tobacco. We’re loath to fuss at colleagues, chary of challenging our administrators. And we know we’ll be accused of being elitist tobacco farmer haters who don’t appreciate true North Carolina heritage. Then there’s the portion of our own salaries that may be implicated. Enough said.

N.C. State is not alone. Nationwide, indeed worldwide, universities take money from big tobacco. Duke is taking millions from Philip Morris, but assuring everyone that there are no strings attached. It’s all for the greater good. Even an organization in which I’m an officer, the American Association of University Professors, opposes a ban on tobacco funding. In May, the faculty of the University of California system overwhelmingly voted to oppose any ban on tobacco company funding. Why? It would deeply violate academic freedom. It’s a slippery, slippery slope. If we take one step, we will slide somewhere too infested with horrors to contemplate.

But investing in horror? Apparently, that’s different. Occasionally a sociologist or epidemiologist points out that’s exactly the distinction we might make here: Tobacco is the only consumer product that ultimately kills half of its customers. Such simplistic cranks.

All this academic freedom rhetoric flowing from universities is remarkably similar to The N&O‘s abiding concern about the free flow of information and censorship.

Nonetheless, someone occasionally manages to thrust a stick into an unfettered stream and create a couple of welcome eddies. The Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and the American Cancer Society have policies against funding scientists who accept tobacco industry money. As the American Cancer Society noted, tobacco-industry research funding “has historically been used to confuse public debate, to delay effective tobacco-control measures, and to buy the appearance of scientific legitimacy rather than to advance scientific knowledge.” Cranks.

Meanwhile, our addicted universities continue helping big tobacco buy legitimacy. N.C. State is mapping the tobacco genome for $17.6 million from Philip Morris USA. All the news releases reassure us that this really isn’t just about tobaccoit’s a model plant sure to be helpful in understanding the tomato and potato and other members of the nightshade family. The tomato, although less poisonous, is also less cooperative than tobacco. And squishier. But the National Science Foundation nonetheless funded Cornell and several other universities to sequence its genome. But it was downright ungracious of the National Eggplant Foundation not to express its gratitude for the trickledown knowledge. OK, so that foundation doesn’t exist. No wonder there was no gratitude.

Universities get millions for their tobacco trouble. Why would The N&O bother with what is a relatively paltry sum to shill for an industry that delivers death and disease to its most loyal customers? Because The N&O, like higher education, knows how critical the principles are. The newspaper is so committed to “an open and free exchange of ideas,” it would amount to censorship to refuse to run the ads, according to Ted Vaden and The N&O‘s VP for display advertising, Jim McClure.

It’s interesting that The New York Times is so comparatively unprincipled. It stopped taking tobacco ads in 1999. “The First Amendment gives the press the right to publish what it chooses to,” Publisher Arthur Schulzberger told his own newspaper. “It doesn’t force the press to publish something, whether that’s a news story or an advertisement.”

Can universities make distinctions between funding sources? I believe they can. Can The N&O simultaneously protect the First Amendment and refuse to run tobacco ads? I believe it can. Will they? I doubt it.

Around and around we go. For the umpteenth time, we get to watch as poor old “First Amendment” is hooked up to his funding harness like a spavined pony, along with his companions “Free Speech” and “Academic Freedom.” They trod wearily around in a dusty circle while the fair hustler holds out his hand for the coins.

And while we watch, bemused, more people sicken and die.

Cat Warren, an associate professor at N.C. State, is on sabbatical this year, working on a book on the media and higher education. She returns to the Indy this week as a regular columnist.