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Group Wages Fight for County Ban on Condom Billboards

January 10, 1988|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

An archconservative women's organization has launched a campaign to remove all condom billboards in Los Angeles County, threatening to withdraw support from two county supervisors up for reelection this year unless they push for legislation to ban the ads.

The American Assn. of Women, a Santa-Monica based group that has waged a lengthy battle to protect "traditional family values" and gained a reputation for punishing any politician who does not actively support its agenda, has turned its attention to county supervisors after failing to convince the Federal Trade Commission that the billboards promote false advertising.

Advertising Campaign

The battle stems from an advertising campaign sponsored by the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. and aimed at educating people about acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The billboard ads, which were unveiled in October, tell readers: "If You Can't Say No . . . Use Condoms (Rubbers), Help Prevent AIDS."

The women's group charges that the ads are immoral and misleading, saying the billboards imply that condoms will prevent exposure to AIDS and will in fact promote promiscuity among young adults. The county medical association, taking the view of U. S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, says that for people who can't or won't abstain from sex, the use of condoms is the next best preventive measure.

Leslie Dutton, president and executive director of the organization, wrote a letter to each supervisor last week, demanding that the board sponsor a resolution banning further condom billboard advertising. Dutton said that if Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich--two of the board's conservative members--don't fight to ban the billboards, then her group will campaign against them, noting "their failure to represent traditional family values." Both men are up for reelection this year.

Time to Speak Up

"We are prepared to educate the public about the stand these elected officials have taken on this matter," Dutton said. "They're letting all of this go by without so much as a whimper. Where are our conservative leaders when it comes time to uphold morality and family values in our country? This is the time for them to speak up."

Dana and Antonovich already have publicly stated that they are opposed to the ads, but that the billboards are outside the board's jurisdiction.

Dana's office is considering a resolution that would direct the county Department of Health Services to study its policy on condoms in connection with AIDS education. Dennis Morefield, Dana's spokesman, said it is unlikely that the board chairman will sponsor a resolution concerning the billboard ads. If any resolution is drafted, it will probably be presented at the supervisors' meeting Tuesday, he said.

Victoria Fouce Antonovich's aide, said that the campaign by the women's group is misdirected and should instead be aimed at the county medical association, the largest in the nation with more than 10,000 members.

"It isn't really us that they have the problem with anyway," Fouce said. "(Antonovich) has already come out against the ads. But even if we wanted to sponsor a resolution, they're aren't enough votes on the board to pass it. The basic issue here is that we don't regulate the advertising industry."

The group filed a formal complaint with the FTC in November asking for an injunction to ban the billboards, noting that "as long as there is no cure or treatment for the deadly AIDS disease, the FTC has the responsibility to protect the public from such a misleading advertising campaign. . . ."

However, the agency responded that since the county medical association is not in the business of manufacturing or selling condoms, the ads are "non-commercial" and therefore protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.

David Zeitlin, spokesman for the medical association, said that it raised $10,000 for the ad campaign, which began in October. About 100 billboard signs went up around the county, half in English and half in Spanish. Space for the ads was donated by two billboard companies, Gannett Outdoor and the Winston Group.

Zeitlin said the ads were put up on a space-available basis and nearly all of them have already been taken down. But he added that the physicians' group has no regrets about the ad campaign, which he said has received a mostly positive response.

"I'm personally proud as hell of what we did with the campaign," Zeitlin said. "This is a vital message that we're putting out. If you don't have a cure for AIDS, then using condoms is one of the few ways to slow the spread of the disease. We're not saying that condoms prevent AIDS; we're saying condoms can help prevent AIDS.

'Fanatics, Misguided'

"These women are fanatics and they're completely misguided. Nobody maintains that condoms are 100% effective, but this is one of the few ways we can help to stop the spread of the disease. These women have a different agenda, though, and they never give up."

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