Windy City's Battle of the Billboards

The Rev. Michael Pfleger saw something disturbing around his South Side parish 14 years ago. Fr. Pfleger and his parishioners counted 118 alcohol and tobacco billboards within a 10-block radius of their St. Sabina Catholic Church, which serves a low-income and mostly black neighborhood. In a nearby, mostly white and middle-income parish, they counted just three signs within a 10-block radius.

Since that discovery Pfleger has fought against the saturation of cigarette and alcohol billboards within inner-city neighborhoods. His efforts and those of other community activists prompted the Chicago City Council last year to ban most alcohol and tobacco billboards. That, in turn, led the liquor, cigarette, and sign companies to protest that their free speech rights are being violated.

Now Pfleger is trying a different tactic - a billboard-for-a-billboard rather than an eye-for-an-eye - to make sure the law sticks. His parish and United HealthCare, a local health-insurance company, have posted a dozen billboards around the South Side urging the outside advertising, tobacco, and alcohol companies to stop fighting the ban in court. "We want to use the same medium the alcohol, tobacco and billboard companies have used to target our children," Pfleger says.

Pfleger's billboards feature a teddy bear and the message: "Alcohol, Tobacco, and Billboard Companies Obey the City Ordinance and Stop Targeting Us! Signed, Children of Chicago."

These signs and the city's ban are the latest salvos in a battle that has raged around the country between health-care advocates and the alcohol, tobacco, and billboard industries. Baltimore already has a law similar to Chicago's that has withstood court challenges, but it has a grandfather clause allowing existing signs to remain posted. Several California communities are restricting alcohol and tobacco signs near schools. A New York City law to ban alcohol and tobacco billboards from within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, day-care centers and amusement arcades is tied up in the courts.

National trend

Other cities are closely watching the situation in Chicago, and are in frequent contact with city officials here to find out about the ban. And that's just what Pfleger was hoping for.

"We knew if we could get it through Chicago, we could get a chain reaction across the country," he says.

Originally the Chicago law allowed billboards with existing contracts to stay in place. But during the 30 days before the law took effect, the companies inked several long-term deals to keep billboards up for years to come, according to the city's legal department. In response, the council amended the law last month to force sign companies to remove existing billboards by August; exceptions remain for sports venues, manufacturing zones and the interiors of places selling alcohol or tobacco products.

The billboard companies say the law unfairly punishes them. Last year tobacco and alcohol signs resulted in earnings of about $350 million, or nearly 17 percent of their total revenues, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

The companies are suing to stop Chicago's billboard ban on the grounds that it violates their First and 14th Amendment rights to commercial free speech. The Chicago ordinance offers no proof outdoor advertising encourages underage drinking and smoking, the lawsuit argues.

"We are concerned about the precedent of mandating restrictions on freedom of speech," says Ruth Segal, executive vice president of the Washington-based Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

Defending its stance

Those within the alcohol industry say their advertisements are designed to encourage adults to choose their product, not to lure kids.

"The companies have a right to let adults know about their products," says Jeff Becker, vice president of the Beer Institute, an industry trade group in Washington. After all, he explains, beer and cigarettes are legal products.

But local health experts don't see it that way.

They say the ban is necessary because the entire community sees the billboards, each and every day. "Studies show increased advertising entices young children," says Janet Carr, United HealthCare's medical director. "Each year there is more and more data that tobacco use is increasing at a younger age."

Dr. Carr and Pfleger hope their billboards, which cost about $4,000 per dozen, will pressure the companies to comply with the city's ban and send a positive message to the community. "We know marketing works," Pfleger says. "The companies spend millions of dollars because that's what works."

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