Big stink in Buffalo over cigarette signs
November 6, 2005
In the last decade anti-smoking forces went after tobacco ads on billboards and won their fight. Now the city of Buffalo is going after tobacco signage on stores.
While the push appears to have little chance of winning, the squabble is certainly inflaming all the old passions, with freedom of speech being pitted against the cause of protecting children from wayward ad messages.
The ban, passed by the city council in 1998 but not enforced until this past summer, prohibits tobacco messages within 1,000 feet of schools and other venues where children are often present. The city now says it wants to extend the ban to include alcohol ads and to add churches as prohibited venues.
But there’s one problem: The ban appears unconstitutional, and it’s joining together what would seem the least likely of allies, the tobacco industry and the American Civil Liberties Union. John Curr, an ACLU lawyer in the Buffalo area, says the city failed to do its homework before passing the ordinance. We warned the city that, should they decide to enforce this, they’re subjecting themselves to a lawsuit.
The grounds: a 2001 Massachusetts court case in which the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned a similar ban, finding that it violated free speech. Curr argues that ban is not covered by the 1998 agreement in which tobacco companies agreed to cease billboard advertising. The fact of the matter is tobacco and alcohol are legal products, and advertising them is legal within the framework of the agreements made, Curr says. No matter how good the intention, infringement on free speech is unconstitutional and illegal.
Says an R.J. Reynolds spokesperson: We oppose it because our opportunities to interact with adult smokers are limited, so the venues in which we can advertise we want to protect.
Curr says the city has yet to respond to the NYCLU’s warnings. It’s easy to frame this as about smoking. It’s not about smoking, it’s about free speech.
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