City moves to limit billboards

October 15, 1993

A coalition of more than 100 Baltimore City community groups scored an unexpected victory in the General Assembly earlier this year. Defeating high-paid lobbyists, they garnered enough support to pass legislation that enables the city to limit certain types of advertising.

Two detailed enforcement ordinances -- one for curtailing liquor advertising, the other restricting outdoor promotion of tobacco -- are now before the City Council. Chances for passage appear good, as 10 of the 19 council members are sponsors.

If passed in the current form, advertisements for alcohol and tobacco products would be prohibited in most "publicly visible locations."

Exceptions would include signs containing the name of a business place, advertising on Mass Transit Administration vehicles and taxicabs as well as signs at Oriole Park, Memorial Stadium and the Pimlico race track.

The outdoor advertising industry is aghast.

"The basic problem is we don't think this whole darned thing is going to do anything," says Fred Lauer, of Penn Advertising, a company with more than 1,000 billboards in the city.

"What's next?" he asked. Then referring to a brand of athletic shoes that have become a symbol of prestige for inner-city youth, he added, "Can we advertise Nike? Kids kill over Nike."

Local ordinances restricting billboard advertising of cigarettes -- and, by implication, liquor -- may not be based on concerns about the public health consequences of consumption, Maryland's attorney general ruled recently.

For that reason, the community activists advocating advertising limits concentrate their arguments on the negative visual and psychological effects of alcohol and tobacco billboards on their neighborhoods, which are mostly poor and black.

"We find ourselves inundated with alcohol and tobacco advertising," complains Beverly Thomas, who spearheads the City Wide Liquor Coalition for Better Laws and Regulation. They usually depict beautiful people, thus linking smoking and drinking with success.

Restricting billboard advertising seems to have become a placebo for citizen activists who are unable to succeed with initiatives to resolve such more serious questions as crime, drugs or vacant houses. They now seem to be succeeding because the advertising industry and liquor and tobacco interests have not been willing to limit billboards voluntarily.

We do not think blanket bans are sound policy. But if the City Council moves to restrict billboards, those powerful lobbies can only blame their own shortsightedness.

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