Clinton supports cigarette ad ban Administration joins Baltimore's fight to keep billboard law

July 20, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has thrown its support behind Baltimore's cigarette billboard ban as part of a Justice Department move to shore up government power to stop tobacco advertising aimed at minors.

The administration this week joined Baltimore's effort in a federal appeals court to save its 2-year-old billboard controls against a First Amendment challenge by advertisers.

It did so, the Justice Department's new brief makes clear, because the administration wants the courts to uphold the Food and Drug Administration's still-developing plan to shut down the marketing of cigarettes to minors.

The Baltimore case, awaiting a new round of review in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., thus is being turned into a major test case on official authority to regulate -- and even prohibit -- advertising that could entice minors to use harmful products.

The appeals court in Richmond is expected to rule on the tobacco industry's constitutional challenge to the FDA anti-tobacco promotion rules, now in the final drafting stage.

Baltimore's City Council adopted two ordinances in early 1994 -- one aimed at cigarette billboards, the other aimed at liquor billboards -- to shield minors from promotions of those products. The two laws ban billboards in areas of the city where minors are more likely to see them.

Both ordinances have been under a legal cloud for the past two months because of a sweeping Supreme Court ruling in May providing significant new constitutional protection for advertisers' First Amendment freedom.

That ruling warned government officials against acting to "keep people in the dark for what the government perceives to be their own good."

But that decision, the Justice Department argued in its brief filed Wednesday, should not affect the constitutionality of Baltimore's ordinance banning cigarette ads in "publicly visible locations," including billboards and the sides of buildings.

The department took no position on the separate ban on liquor signs. That, too, is being reviewed anew by the appeals court, in a separate case.

Although the appeals court upheld both ordinances in August, advertisers challenged them in appeals to the Supreme Court, and the justices sent both laws back to the appeals court to take another look, applying the Supreme Court's May ruling on advertisers' freedom.

The Justice Department argued that the May ruling does not interfere with government power to regulate advertising to protect minors. "Baltimore's cigarette advertising ordinance," the department said, "is not intended to affect cigarette consumption by adults. Instead, it is designed to reduce cigarette consumption by minors."

Although the Supreme Court had raised doubts about government power to act in a "paternalistic" way toward commercial information, "it is entirely legitimate under the First Amendment for the government to act paternalistically in order to protect children," the department contended.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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