Stage set for fight over liquor, tobacco billboards Council takes up proposed ban today

September 20, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

A "Kool" woman crouched down with a sultry smile keeps watch over King's Deliverance Holiness Church in the heart of West Baltimore.

Not far away, cognac is being poured in a perfect swirl into a snifter next to a young, sleek couple, their arms stretched wide with "Newport Pleasure." Street after street, sign after sign, the glamorous black models stare down from liquor and cigarette billboards at the boarded-up rowhouses of Sandtown-Winchester, unaware that they may face eviction.

Baltimore is considering legislation this fall that would make it the first in the nation to ban almost all alcohol and tobacco billboards.

City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a 4th District Democrat, plans to introduce a measure today that would prohibit liquor billboards except in heavy industrial zones, and near the Pimlico Race Course, Memorial Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Liquor stores also would be forced to strip all beer, wine and spirit ads from their exterior walls.

Another bill to ban tobacco billboards is in the works.

The city has requested a legal opinion from Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. on whether local jurisdictions or only the federal government can regulate cigarette advertising. City Solicitor Neal M. Janey issued an opinion last year, when the council first attempted to pass sweeping billboard legislation, saying he concluded it would conflict with the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act.

The mayor has lined up behind the initiative, as have Council President Mary Pat Clarke and at least three other council members.

"We think it's pretty clear that we have to reduce the amount of cigarette and alcohol advertising in our city," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says.

Banning the billboards is widely backed by grass-roots activists whohave argued for years that they target the young in the city's poor and predominantly black neighborhoods. Sandtown-Winchester, Park Heights and much of East Baltimore have more than their share of liquor and cigarette ads, they say.

In the past two years, a coalition of community groups had pressured the city to crack down on illegal "junior billboards."

The signs, which measure 6 feet by 12 feet, were posted on the sides of buildings throughout the city and often advertised tobacco and alcohol. Hundreds were taken down after a city Circuit Court judge ruled them illegal in late 1991.

But the latest measure would regulate the content of billboards, not their location. It's already being attacked as censorship by Baltimore's billboard companies, liquor stores and some high-profile lobbyists.

Bruce C. Bereano, one of Annapolis' most powerful lobbyists, who argued against the state measure allowing Baltimore to ban liquor billboards, says he's gearing up for a long legal battle.

"It's very discriminatory because it exempts out certain things and not others," contends Mr. Bereano, who represents the Washington-based Tobacco Institute. "I think this is a matter that will clearly find its way into the courts."

Penn Advertising of Baltimore Inc., which owns 90 percent of the billboards in the city, denies that liquor and tobacco is advertised more heavily in minority neighborhoods. Fred M. Lauer, the company's attorney, says advertisers try to spread out across the city to reach the greatest number of consumers.

For Ronley Wedington, the five cigarette billboards on Greenmount Avenue between East Chase and 25th streets bombard his daughters with the wrong messages.

When he walks 9-year-old Tabitha and 7-year-old Laronda home from Johnston Square Elementary School, he also has to steer them past stores plastered with liquor ads.

'Bad effect on children'

"I think it has a bad effect on children," Mr. Wedington says, holding the hands of his daughters as he waits for the crossing guard at Greenmount and Chase. "They see these billboards with black adults always smoking or with a bottle of liquor in their mouth."

His feelings are shared by growing numbers of residents of impoverished inner-city neighborhoods across the nation. Ministers and community leaders complain that the liquor and tobacco industries are trying to offset shrinking sales with ad campaigns aimed at poor and young blacks.

In Chicago, a Roman Catholic priest has become famous for painting over ads on the South Side. The Rev. Jesse Brown, president of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, was arrested this summer after taking a brush and black paint to billboards in North Philadelphia.

Community pressure prompted the New York Metropolitan Transportation Association to ban tobacco advertising last year. And numerous states, including Virginia, either prohibit or restrict the locations of outdoor liquor advertisements.

"It targets the children," argues Tina Thompson, a resident of Sandtown-Winchester, a neighborhood in which half of the 10,305 residents live in poverty. "I see the little kids rolling up papers and trying to puff on them. They are influenced by it."

Billboards flank churches

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