Do the pop stars and sleek models who stare down from billboards seduce young people into tasting their first beer? Or do they just entice adults into sampling another brand?
Both arguments were made last night during a lengthy, crowded and heated public hearing on legislation that would make Baltimore the first city in the nation to ban almost all outdoor alcohol and tobacco advertising.
Community groups fighting to prohibit the billboards argued that they target the young in the city's poor and predominantly black neighborhoods.
Supporters of the ban came armed with research and opinion polls finding that the ads significantly increase the likelihood that minors will experiment with alcohol and cigarettes.
Liquor store owners, alcoholic beverage distributors and the city's largest billboard company cited surveys showing just the opposite.
More than 90 percent of 1,205 Baltimore teen-agers and adults say advertising did not influence their decision to start drinking, according to a poll commissioned by Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc.
An overflow crowd of 250 packed the City Council chambers for last night's hearing.
Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a 4th District Democrat who has spearheaded the legislation, argued that billboards, unlike other advertising, can't be tuned out.
"You cannot turn off billboards," she said. "You cannot turn off the signs on the sides of buildings that our children are exposed to simply by walking to school." Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. testified that the city has the authority to regulate the billboards, while Dr. Mark Crispin Miller, media critic and professor at Johns Hopkins University, gave a slide show demonstrating how the alcohol and tobacco industries sell their products as an entrance to the "high life."
Fred M. Lauer, the attorney for Penn Advertising, which owns 90 percent of the billboards in Baltimore, sat surrounded by dozens of liquor store owners sporting buttons against the alcohol advertising bill. Penn recently announced that it would strip all cigarette and alcohol ads off 111 billboards within 500 feet of schools and churches.