Billboard wars

Mike McManus

November 08, 1991|By Mike McManus

TWO YEARS ago, the Abell Foundation, created by proceeds of the sale of The Baltimore Sun, published a report, "Billboards: Should Baltimore City Ban Them?" Thus, a foundation whose wealth came from an institution whose freedom of expression is guaranteed by the First Amendment questioned whether the media's freedom had been taken too far when it came to billboard ads.

Why? Abell cited a study of 2,000 billboards in Baltimore that found:

* Over 75 percent of the billboards are in poor black neighborhoods.

* And 70 percent of the billboards advertise tobacco or alcohol, evidence that advertisers of addictive products targeted those people who can least afford cigarettes or liquor.

* The incidence of lung cancer is higher among black Americans than among whites.

The Abell report also noted that a study of smoking among blacks in Washington, D.C., concluded that it "is the major cause of a dramatic disparity between the health of the city's blacks and whites."

Reed Tuckson, the D.C. public health commissioner, accused the tobacco industry of "targeting advertising at the vulnerable and oppressed segments and subjugating people of color through disease. The problem involves a $35 billion industry versus a minority population that suffers 60,000 excess deaths every year compared with the white population."

What's more insidious than the clear targeting of minorities by cigarette and liquor companies is the targeting of minority kids. In New York and elsewhere billboards are placed next to elementary schools.

So even before they can read, black and Hispanic kids can see young, attractive athletic-looking black models smoking and drinking booze. They are uniquely able to reinforce smoking and drinking as norms and goals.

An adult who does not smoke is not going to start. So how is the tobacco industry to replace the hundreds of thousands of dead smokers and the millions of adults who have stopped?

Obviously, "the only pool of available replacements is children," says Smokefree Educational Services, an anti-smoking group. "If the tobacco industry doesn't get children addicted, it will go out of business."

Fortunately, minority political and religious leaders are fighting the companies selling addiction -- and often are winning.

In Baltimore, the City Council sued an advertising firm for putting up 1,300 "junior" billboards, typically 5-by-10-foot signs posted on the walls of buildings, without getting a city permit for them. The company countersued, claiming the city hadn't objected for years. The Maryland Court of Appeals has upheld the council's position.

More radical action was taken in Chicago by a Catholic priest, Rev. Michael Pfleger, who defaced cigarette billboards. He pleaded not guilty under the "necessity defense," which holds that otherwise unlawful practices can be justified if the defendant reasonably believes his conduct is necessary to avoid greater public or private injury.

After only an hour of deliberation, the jury agreed he was not guilty. Cheers erupted in the courtroom. Many cried. Even the court reporter wiped away tears. "Thank you, jury," said Pfleger.

His case was buttressed by a survey by the Chicago Lung Association showing that inner-city communities have three times as many tobacco billboards as white ones.

Then there is the San Diego "billboard bandit," Donald House, who paints messages on tobacco billboards: "Smoking Kills," "434,000 Dead" and "Cancer Ain't Suave." On June 13, just before a San Diego Padres baseball game, he climbed on the huge stadium billboard and painted this message:

"How could a product too unhealthy to advertise on TV and radio be perfect to push down the throats of children who attend baseball games?" He was arrested.

Defacing cigarette and alcohol ads has almost become a sport in Philadelphia and New York. Often the companies do not press charges. "The more they raise the issue, the more they lose," says Joe Churner, the volunteer director of Smokefree.

Rev. Calvin Butts, the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, has led defacing forays that painted over many billboards. Police, however, are under strict orders that no one is to be arrested. Why? "He has so much support, the last thing the cigarette companies want is for him to get arrested," says Churner.

A5 Is this the beginning of the end for tobacco ads?

Mike McManus writes from Bethesda.

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