Billboard ban is in demand Benchmark: Cities across the country consider laws similar to Baltimore's tested tobacco ad restrictions.

November 11, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- While Baltimore's City Council has been discussing ways to replicate New York City's recent gains in public safety and sanitation, the talk among city councilors here, and in municipalities around the country, is about how best to borrow the wisdom of their counterparts in Baltimore.

Later this month, the New York City Council is expected to vote on -- and pass -- a bill whose authors have heavily plagiarized from a Baltimore statute: a 1994 law that restricts the placement of outdoor advertisements for tobacco products.

The New York bill, which refers explicitly to Baltimore, would ban such billboards on 90 percent of the land in the nation's largest and most billboard-filled city.

"We carefully crafted our bill to match the Baltimore law," said Richard M. Weinberg, general counsel for the New York City Council and the principal drafter of the bill. "We wanted to mimic Baltimore so that our law, like theirs, can withstand challenges in court."

Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers, which opposes such laws, said, "New York is one of a number of cities and countries that have taken the Baltimore law, and the courts' refusal to strike it down, as a message that says: 'Go ahead.'

"Baltimore is spreading across the country," he adds.

At the time the Baltimore law was passed, council members seemed to have little idea of the implications of their vote.

The bill, approved unanimously on Feb. 28, 1994, was designed to reduce the number of cigarette billboards within view of children by banning the placement of such ads near schools, churches and parks. City lawmakers described the bill as routine. "It's no big deal," then-Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge said during debate.

But the law prompted a strong court challenge by the billboard industry. A year ago, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law. The court said the law did not violate First Amendment protections of free speech because the statute "does not address the content" of the ads and because it is directed at stopping an illegal act: "the sale of cigarettes to minors."

That decision was challenged in two separate appeals in March. But in April, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeals, allowing Baltimore to begin enforcing the ordinance.

Since April, at least a dozen city councils, from Ohio to California, have considered adopting Baltimore-style laws.

In Cleveland, Mayor Michael White used the Baltimore bill as a model for a measure he proposed this fall to his city's legislature. Los Angeles and San Francisco are debating similar bills. Officials in these cities say they are acting because of the Baltimore law, and because they don't believe the settlement reached by tobacco companies and the attorney generals of several states earlier this year -- an agreement that includes curbs on cigarette advertising -- will ever win the approval of the Congress.

"In the meantime, Baltimore has become sort of a clearinghouse for cities from all over the country on this," said Chris Fritz, an attorney with Gallagher, Evelius & Jones, who worked pro bono as a principal author of the Baltimore law.

"What I've been doing more than anything else is talking with lawyers," said Fritz, "and giving them assistance in trying to craft similar legislation."

In most cities, such bills have sparked little controversy. In New York, however, there is fierce opposition to the proposed law from small businesses, advertisers and civil libertarians.

New York's measure goes further than the Baltimore law or FDA regulations by prohibiting all types of tobacco advertisement, including convenience store placards, within 1,000 feet of not only schools and parks, but also day care centers and arcades. In a densely populated city, such broad prohibitions would allow cigarette billboards on less than 10 percent of the land.

"The law is so broad that it prevents not only children but basically anyone from seeing such information," said Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer who has testified against the New York bill.

Abrams and several tobacco companies which oppose the law argue that the Supreme Court's decision last year to strike down a law that permitted censoring of the Internet to protect children should apply here.

"The principle is the same," said Abrams. "The government may not restrict the adult population on the basis of what is fit for children."

But support for the measure is strong across New York neighborhoods, though it will have a different impact on each. In one Brooklyn section, parents have been pushing for years to remove cigarette billboards that tower over two playgrounds. But a mile away, a "Newport Pleasure" sign about 600 feet from Westinghouse Vocational and Technical High School has not attracted a single complaint from students or their parents, officials said.

"Too many people in high school smoke," said sophomore Anthony LeFleur, as he walked through the school's metal detector. "But we got worse things to worry about than cigarettes here."

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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