Billboard blight

March 24, 1993

For years, Baltimore community groups have waged an uphil campaign against the companies that blight neighborhood billboards and walls with glossy advertisements for alcohol and cigarettes.

The ads invariably portray smiling, successful people in situations calculated to evoke the good life. What the ads never show are the wasted lives, broken families and shattered futures that too often are the bitter result of chronic alcohol abuse, or the illness caused by tobacco.

Baltimore has made significant progress combating such propaganda. Two years ago, neighborhoods won a victory when a District Court judge ordered a local firm to remove more than 1,300 billboards that violated zoning laws. Though appeals dragged on for months afterward, the case heartened community groups by showing they could take on the powerful liquor lobby and win.

Now an alliance of neighborhood groups called the Citywide Liquor Coalition is seeking legislation that would ban all liquor advertisements from city billboards and walls. A bill drafted by the coalition with help from the Citizens Planning and Housing Association presently is pending in the state Senate. The measure would make it illegal to put up liquor ads on billboards, handbills or posters in the city, except at the Camden Yards stadium, the Baltimore Arena and Memorial Stadium.

If it passes the Senate, the bill will go to the House of Delegates, where industry forces belatedly have geared up for battle against it. The advertising companies have enlisted Annapolis super-lobbyist Bruce Bereano to help defeat the measure or water it down with crippling amendments. The coalition, meanwhile, vows to keep the pressure on lawmakers to respond to community sentiment.

Our preference would be for store owners to agree voluntarily to remove the offending signs without resort to threat of a law. But this is also a struggle for self-empowerment and dignity on the part of local people who too often find their neighborhoods primary targets of billboard ads that cynically exploit the despair and hopelessness in poor communities. City delegates overwhelmingly support the measure, which applies only to Baltimore City. Suburban lawmakers have no real reason to oppose it, though the liquor industry will try to persuade them otherwise.

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