A plague of billboards

THERE are about 953 billboards in Baltimore City, of which 45 percent advertise alcohol and tobacco products.

These billboards are located next to schools, beside churches, in front of homes, on highways and along scenic city vistas. They are 24-hour-a-day advertisements that constantly barrage children with messages about how to be successful in today's world. These billboards cannot be turned off or thrown away, like television or newspapers, and parents cannot protect their children from their deadly messages.


Before children can read, they recognize and love Old Joe Camel and are influenced by advertisements that promote alcohol and tobacco. They emulate the behavior they see advertised. By the time children realize that smoking and drinking do not make them cool, they are addicted.

The Coalition for Beautiful Neighborhoods is a community-based coalition organized to fight the blight and health hazards caused by billboards. Comprising 70 neighborhood associations, civic organizations and churches, the coalition has worked successfully with Councilwoman Sheila Dixon of the 4th District and Councilmen Martin O'Malley of the 3rd District and Carl Stokes of the 2nd to have introduced into City Council four bills to protect our city from billboards and their promotion of harmful substances.


If passed, these bills will greatly relieve neighborhoods of a lethal and blighting weapon. City Council Bill 293 bans all alcohol and tobacco advertising from billboards. City Council Bill 294 would control the placement of billboards in neighborhoods; Bill 292 provides for a licensing system and fee to help control billboards and generate revenue for the city. And Bill 295 is a resolution calling on the state to change the way it taxes billboards.

Many of the 953 billboards are located in or at the gateways of inner-city neighborhoods. According to Norman Handy, minister of Unity United Methodist Church and a member of the Coalition for Beautiful Neighborhoods, "Billboard advertisements are often the brightest and most colorful thing in our neighborhoods. It is a shame when the brightest and most colorful object is an advertisement promoting alcohol and tobacco consumption to our children."

Various statistics, studies and statements support our assertions:

* Joe Camel is as familiar to 6-year-olds as Mickey Mouse, according to the American Medical Association.

* Cigarette sales to children amount to about $221 million a year.

* According to Media and Values Quarterly, the tobacco industry spends $421 million a year and the liquor industry about $111 million on billboard advertising.

* The surgeon general, Antonia Novella, has warned consistently against tobacco and alcohol advertising directed at youth -- advertisements that mislead children by portraying young people engaged in what looks to be exciting physical activity while simultaneously smoking and/or drinking. The alcohol, tobacco and billboard industries have ignored her warnings.

In Baltimore we have a chance to stop targeted alcohol and tobacco advertising, to get billboards out of the neighborhoods and to levy fees and monitor billboards. Already 10 city council members support the legislation. Let's stop the harmful advertising and the deterioration of our neighborhoods.


Sylvia Fulwood and Barbara C. Ferguson are cochairs of the Coalition for Beautiful Neighborhoods.