Citizen Activists' Billboard Victory

April 20, 1993

One of the surprising turns of events during this year's General Assembly session was the passage of a bill that sets the stage for a strict limit on billboard liquor ads in Baltimore City. Fighting against well-financed beverage lobbyists, dozens of citizen organizations applied enough pressure on legislators to score a narrow victory.

"We think it's very significant," said Kevin Jordan, a Citizens Planning and Housing Association official, who worked on the billboard legislation. "As a community bill it is a huge deal, especially in a lot of low-income communities."

This latest victory establishes the City Wide Liquor Coalition, once a quixotic collection of loosely organizationed civic groups, as a factor that tobacco and liquor companies as well as the outdoor advertising industry had better take seriously in Baltimore.

In the past two years, the coalition has dealt repeated blows to the outdoor advertising industry. It fought -- and won -- a legal battle over outlawing some 1,300 billboards that were deemed to violate zoning laws. The victory in Annapolis is now likely to strengthen the coalition's push for other anti-alcohol measures and also inaugurate a campaign against tobacco products.

Under the bill passed in Annapolis, the City Council is authorized to adopt ordinances that restrict the placement of signs and posters advertising alcohol beverages outdoors. Since a measure to this effect, introduced by Fourth District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, is already before the council, it could be only a matter of time before such a restriction is imposed on liquor advertisements in Baltimore City.

Members of the City Wide Liquor Coalition have long argued that billboards promoting liquor and tobacco products and showing smiling, successful people have been concentrated in many of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods.

Such advertising, local activists contend, amounts to exploitation of communities that are particularly vulnerable. Since state-level politicians have now concurred with that view, it is possible that the liquor coalition's victory may result in a stricter overall enforcement of liquor laws in the city. Is the liquor board listening?

This victory should produce more activism by city neighborhoods that are at risk. Communities ought to act on housing issues, in particular, now that it has been demonstrated again that politicians do listen.

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