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Government – City Mulls Alcohol Ad Ban

A plan being studied by the San Diego City Council would outlaw alcoholic beverage billboards within a few blocks of schools or other areas where children gather.

Meanwhile, a similar ban for the entire state, put forward by Assemblywoman Susan Davis, D-San Diego, recently was defeated in an Assembly committee.

Staffers for both Davis and the city manager said their goal is to keep children away from alcohol.

Advertising and hospitality industry representatives, however, contend the proposals threaten their right to free speech, and said the billboard industry was already working to keep alcohol ads away from places where children congregate.

The San Diego proposal and the one defeated in Sacramento called for no alcohol billboards within 1,000 feet of schools. The draft city ordinance would also limit billboard ads for alcohol within 1,000 feet of arcades, playgrounds, recreation centers, child care centers and libraries.

The City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee asked city staffers to investigate the matter in February and will revisit the issue sometime in the fall, said committee consultant Bill Harris.

Compliance

Already, billboard companies voluntarily refuse to post alcohol ads within 500 feet of schools and other areas where children gather, said representatives of Eller Media Co. and Infinity Outdoor, Inc., two Phoenix-based companies that sell billboard space in San Diego County.

Infinity Outdoor, Inc. is the new name for Outdoor Systems Advertising, which changed its name in February to reflect its purchase by Infinity Broadcasting Corp., a division of CBS.

Infinity has stuck to the 500-foot limit since 1990, according to the company’s director of communications, Tom Wisz. The company applies its 500-foot limit to churches as well, he said.

In a similar way, he said, it voluntarily restricted tobacco ads , though the tobacco settlement has since stripped cigarette ads from billboards entirely.

The company evaluates the appropriateness of advertising for individual sites, Wisz added.

“We’re constantly striving to balance community needs with the First Amendment rights of our advertisers,” he said.

As long as alcohol is legal, he added, advertisers have the right to promote it.

Ed Dato, public affairs manager for Eller Media Co., and Stephen Zolezzi, executive vice president for the Food & Beverage Association of San Diego County, acknowledged a billboard restriction would be bad for business.

Anything that limits an opportunity to promote products has “an absolutely negative effect,” said Zolezzi, whose association represents the restaurant and bar industry.

Free Speech

Both said those concerns are secondary. The constitutional guarantee of free speech is their top concern, both said.

“Any time we try to place restrictions on speech, we have a high burden,” San Diego Deputy City Attorney Theresa McAteer acknowledged.

Industry groups are already pursuing lawsuits against similar bans in Oakland and Los Angeles, said Dato.

To lay groundwork for a possible ban, city officials are holding a series of meetings to take testimony on what the community is doing to keep children away from alcohol, whether those efforts are effective, and whether the billboard restriction would aid in those efforts.

The hearings are in anticipation of possible legal challenges, Harris said.

Appearing at a hearing last week in La Jolla, Zolezzi cited a number of programs alcoholic beverage retailers use to keep alcohol out of minors’ hands.

“Advertising neither causes licensed beverage abuse nor does it cause illegal, under-age drinking,” he said.

Also as part of its preparation, the city is compiling an inventory of billboards within 1,000 feet of schools, arcades and other areas cited by the ordinance, Harris said.

The San Diego proposal relates only to billboards, not other signage, according to representatives of the city attorney’s office.

Supporting both the city and state efforts is the San Diego Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Advertising, which includes nearly two dozen groups trying to halt under-age drinking.

Assemblywoman Davis sponsored the defeated state bill, AB-1932.

Davis’ bill originally called for restricting alcohol advertising within 1,000 feet of libraries, playgrounds, schools and other places where children gather. It was amended to make the restriction within 1,000 feet of schools only, then was defeated April 24 in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee by a 6-4 vote.

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