War on Liquor Billboards

November 02, 1993

One of the big surprises during this year's General Assembly session was the passage of a bill that set the stage for a strict limit on billboards advertising alcohol in Baltimore City. Well-financed beverage lobbyists were defeated by activists from some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Emboldened by its victory, the City Wide Liquor Coalition for Better Laws and Regulation is pressing on. This fall saw the introduction of a City Council ordinance that would regulate in detail what kind of outdoor advertising of tobacco and alcohol products is permitted in Baltimore.

The bill already has 10 sponsoring council members, enough for passage.

Advertisements for alcohol and tobacco products would be prohibited in most "publicly visible locations." Excluded would be signs containing the name of a business premise, advertising on MTA vehicles or taxicabs as well as signs at Oriole Park, Memorial Stadium and the Pimlico race track.

This measure grew out of many inner-city neighborhoods' desperation with their physical deterioration. As citizens were aroused, they quickly focused on such symbolic issues also as the heavy concentration of certain types of billboard advertising in poor areas of Baltimore.

"We find ourselves inundated with alcohol and tobacco advertising," explains Beverly Thomas, chairwoman of the coalition.

As efforts to win voluntary restraint and cooperation from the outdoor advertising industry and liquor and convenience stores flagged, activists began pushing for legal prohibitions.

A recent attorney general's opinion affirmed a local jurisdiction's authority to restrict smoking in public places and to limit cigarette advertising on billboards.

Those that would be affected by restrictions are understandably unhappy. "The basic problem is we don't think this whole darn thing is going to do anything," says Fred Lauer, a lawyer for Penn Advertising. "What is next? Cars? Should advertising for cars be limited because people get killed and injured in them every day?"

In the past, this newspaper has urged citizen activists in Baltimore City to seek voluntary cooperation. Those efforts have failed. We do not like outright bans but a blanket restriction seems to be the only avenue left for residents who want to upgrade their communities and free them of the visual and psychological pollution of unwanted advertising messages.

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