Denver City Council compromises on tobacco billboards

Wednesday, May 13, 1998

The Denver City Council approved several amendments late Monday night to an ordinance that would have totally banned tobacco billboard advertising.

Under the terms of last night's compromise, tobacco billboards now will not be allowed within 1,000 feet of any school, recreation center or park.

In late April, the 13-member council passed the ordinance on first reading by a 9-3 vote.

The impetus for the proposal, designed to stop the advertising of tobacco products to minors, particularly in minority neighborhoods, came from a group of students at Denver's West High School. Several students in Alan Chimento's government class put together a project called “Tobacco Advertising Kills Every Day” or “TAKE—We Won't Take It Anymore.”

Chimento said: “I think the project has been a tremendous experience for the students. They learned about how our government and whole system works. I also think they learned some things along the way about the First Amendment, about who has First Amendment rights and how far-reaching those rights are.”

Chimento said the students were pleased with the compromise outcome: “They were happy that there was a compromise, instead of litigation that would tie the ordinance up in court for six years or something.”

The students discovered during their research a disparity in the amount of tobacco advertising in different neighborhoods. The students, relying in part on a study by the Latin American Research and Service Agency, found that there was far more tobacco advertising in Latin American and African-American communities.

The students wanted the City Council to draft an ordinance stopping what they perceived to be the tobacco and advertising industries' targeting of minorities.

Elena Thomas, director of public policy for LARASA, said: “Our main objective was to protect youth from tobacco advertising. We are not interested in removing free-speech rights but in wanting to make sure there is a balance of rights and responsibilities.”

The students approached Councilwoman Debbie Ortega about a year and a half ago for help in combating the problem.

Jeff Dorschner, assistant to Ortega, said that “the students approached the councilwoman about the effects of tobacco advertising and solicited her support in coming up with a solution. There was not one negotiating session or one piece of the process that the students did not attend.”

Dorschner said Ortega had two objectives: “to stop youths and, particularly minority youths, from being the targets of tobacco advertisers.”

This concern about the supposed targeting of youth and minority communities led to the bill's original language, which would have completely banned tobacco billboards. However, the outdoor advertising community lobbied the council to amend its position, and, after a series of negotiating sessions, the council adopted amendments to restrict, but not ban, tobacco billboards.

Steve Zansberg, one of the attorneys for the Colorado Outdoor Advertising Association, said: “The bill as originally drafted was blatantly unconstitutional and overbroad, because it had an outright, blanket ban on tobacco billboards.

“I am still of the opinion that the ordinance is unconstitutional even as amended. However, my client would rather communicate than litigate, so we agreed not to sue if the council would change the language of the ordinance,” Zansberg said.

City Council President Cathy Reynolds, who voted against the original bill, also supported the amendments but said she still feels there is a restriction of First Amendment rights.

“I voted for the amendments because they loosened the restrictions on advertising that I think violated the First Amendment and the free-speech guarantees under the Colorado Constitution,” she said.

“I don't think we should be in the business of censoring content,” Reynolds said. “My vote has nothing to do with tobacco, which is an emotionally charged issue. I fear we are heading down a slippery slope of following the politically correct movement of censoring material we don't like.

“Now it's billboards. What will be next–movies, books or libraries?” she asked. “I just have a philosophical problem with starting down this path at all.

Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb, said: “The mayor is in support of the bill as amended. He was in support of the original proposals, but he is also comfortable with the amendments. The mayor will sign the bill if it is approved.”

Dorschner, Hudson and Reynolds all said the bill would come up for a third and final consideration next Monday.