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Tobacco, Alcohol Billboards Criticized

Advertising: Oxnard coalition, saying too many displays target Latinos, seeks a ban or restrictions. Industry representatives reject activists' arguments.


Community activists have launched a countywide campaign to restrict or ban billboards that promote alcohol and tobacco, saying such advertising is disproportionately targeted at Latino communities and lures youngsters into smoking and drinking.

The effort is rooted in Oxnard, where a coalition of Latino leaders and clergy members has persuaded city officials to study creation of a law limiting the placement of such outdoor displays.

Coalition members hope other Ventura County cities follow suit, calling the campaign a much-needed safeguard against the unwanted influences--especially involving children--of liquor and cigarette ads.

"Our communities are bombarded by all this propaganda," said Antonio Garcia, alcohol and environmental specialist for El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, a Latino advocacy group spearheading the effort.

"Adults can make up their own minds about whether they want to smoke or drink," Garcia added. "But young people can't turn these billboards on and off. We're just trying to protect children from these messages."

The Oxnard-based coalition could be in for an uphill battle.

Although cities across the country have adopted ordinances restricting placement of the outdoor displays, Oxnard City Atty. Gary Gillig said the city needs to be careful not to trample on advertisers' 1st Amendment guarantees of free speech.

City leaders also need to understand that any restrictions placed on such advertising could wind up facing a court challenge, Gillig said.

"One of the things we will have to consider is whether we really want to take on R.J. Reynolds and Anheuser-Busch," said Gillig, who plans to brief council members this month on his research and determine whether they want to move forward.

"You just can't go out and ban [advertisement of] a legitimate product," he said. "Just because it sounds like a good idea, without proper findings it's not going to fly."

Industry representatives say those findings do not exist.

For a law restricting speech to be upheld, courts have required that the government demonstrate a substantial public interest in the regulation, as well as showing that some other method could not achieve the same result.

While some studies purport to link exposure to advertisements with teenage drinking and smoking, alcohol industry spokesman Art DeCelle said there is no solid evidence supporting that connection.

In fact, some researchers say advertising only plays a role in determining what kind of alcohol people drink, not whether they drink at all.

DeCelle, general counsel for the Beer Institute, a trade association for the brewing industry, said there is no truth to accusations that the industry targets minors or that it inappropriately advertises to Latinos.

Moreover, he said, larger companies already voluntarily comply with industry guidelines for responsible advertising.


Therefore, DeCelle said, the industry will continue to defend its right to advertise wherever appropriate.

"It's the Information Age, and if you can't advertise it's hard to stay in business," said DeCelle, adding that the industry has spent more than $300 million in the past decade to promote responsible drinking.

"In spite of the overall decline in alcohol abuse in most areas, there's still a fair amount of activity among groups that are either opposed to alcohol advertising or have some other ax to grind," he said. "Our industry has never ducked the issue of alcohol abuse, we just feel that is separate from advertising issues."

Members of the Oxnard-based coalition see the issues as one in the same, especially in Latino communities already plagued by high levels of drunk-driving arrests and alcohol-related health problems.

The federal government two years ago undertook its first detailed ethnic-focused look at substance abuse. It found that Mexican American men have the highest rates of heavy, problem drinking.

Another study, from the Alcohol Research Group, found about 23% of Mexican American men--30% in California--were frequent heavy, problem drinkers contrasted with 12% of white men and 15% of African American men.

Nationwide, Mexican Americans were twice as likely to be arrested for drunk driving as whites or African Americans, according to the Alcohol Research Group study.

Closer to home, El Concilio's Garcia said nearly one-third of all arrests in Oxnard and Port Hueneme are alcohol-related. Oxnard has more alcohol-related auto accidents than many other similar-sized cities, he said.

Garcia said various groups have banded together to root out alcohol-related problems in Latino communities. But he said it doesn't help that many of those same communities are exposed to a constant barrage of messages from beer companies.

In Oxnard, where Latinos make up about 65% of the population, Garcia said there are four billboards on major thoroughfares promoting various brands of beer.

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