Gov. William Donald Schaefer has a tough choice to make later this week: whether to sign or veto a bill giving Baltimore City officials the power to ban liquor advertising from billboards within the city limits.
It's a close call for a number of reasons. First, neighborhood groups in Baltimore City have pushed hard for this proposal, and they have valid concerns. Poor and black communities are being targeted by liquor companies that utilize billboards to promote their alcoholic products. Neighborhood leaders want to rid their streets of these unsightly and suggestive liquor ads that indirectly encourage youngsters to enjoy the good life by boozing it up. It also encourages adults with drinking problems to continue their dangerous habits. If these inner-city communities are to succeed in improving neighborhood life, a ban on liquor billboard ads would be a big assist.
Second, the bill approved by the General Assembly simply delegates to local elected Baltimore City officials the decision on whether to proceed with a liquor billboard ban. There's nothing wrong in giving to local jurisdictions the power to decide what's best within their own communities.
But this bill gives us considerable concern. It calls for a highly selective ban on advertising that doesn't affect liquor advertising on tavern buildings or liquor stores, or liquor ads on buses or taxis or liquor ads at Camden Yards, Pimlico Race Track or Memorial Stadium. It imposes a restriction that may run afoul of a recent Supreme Court ruling on applying free-speech rights to commercial advertising. And the ban could boomerang on the city by costing it jobs at ad firms as well as revenue from the lost billboard ads for local businesses.
The governor may well sign this measure and toss these difficult questions to the mayor and city council. But we would like to see Baltimore officials approach this matter with caution. Any hasty move to ban liquor billboard advertising in the city could immediately run into a legal tangle that would take years to resolve. The wiser course would be to keep this local power in reserve and then use it to win concessions from the advertising and liquor industries.
Already, these groups are pledging a raft of cooperative efforts, including voluntarily curtailing excessive advertising at certain locations, restricting liquor ads in some areas and embarking on a public education program in the city to discourage underage drinking.
Working with these industries, city officials can accomplish far more than simply wiping out the offensive liquor billboard ads by fiat. The threat of a ban may be the city's most potent weapon.