R.I. legislators target tobacco, alcohol ads

Friday, January 28, 2000

Rhode Island lawmakers are considering a bill that would place heavy restrictions on the location of tobacco and alcohol advertisements.

House Bill 6897, introduced on Jan. 18, would prohibit the advertisement of tobacco and alcohol products within “a radius of one (1) mile of any school building or any property adjacent thereto which is utilized by such school.”

The bill, introduced by Democratic state Reps. Joseph M. McNamara and Gary Hogan, has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which has not set a hearing date.

McNamara says the bill is designed to protect minors from harmful products. “The objective of the bill is to keep Joe Camel ads and similar tobacco ads, which clearly target younger people as potential cigarette smokers, away from schools,” he said.

Many cities have proposed restrictions on outdoor alcohol and tobacco ads after a Baltimore city ordinance restricting such billboards was upheld by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Anheuser-Busch v. Schmoke and Penn Adv. of Baltimore v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore.

The 4th Circuit wrote that “children deserve special solicitude in the First Amendment balance because they lack the ability to assess and analyze fully the information presented through commercial media.”

However, some experts say that the Rhode Island bill squelches free-speech rights.

Rick Kaplar, editor of the Commercial Speech Digest, said that the bill would “amount to an outright ban on commercial speech.”

Many municipalities have enacted restrictions on the placement of tobacco and alcohol ads, though restricted zones do not usually extend as far as one mile from schools, playgrounds and the like. “The standard with this sort of legislation is either 500 or 1,000 feet,” Kaplar said. “This is an unusually large distance restriction.”

Steve Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties of Rhode Island, also opposes the bill on First Amendment grounds.

“The ACLU believes it is not appropriate for the government to be censoring the advertising of lawful products on the basis of content,” Brown said. “Rhode Island is a small state. This bill and its large distance requirement would cover just about everything in the state.”

McNamara said he wanted to “aim high” when asked about the unusually large distance requirement. “We aim high and they can negotiate down if need be in committee,” he said.