San Francisco official wants to put brakes on taxicab tobacco ads

Wednesday, June 17, 1998

In an effort to drive tobacco advertisements from San Francisco's cityscape, a city official recently introduced a measure to ban the ads from taxicabs.

Supervisor Gavin Newsom is pushing the city to amend its ordinance regulating tobacco ads. His proposal would provide that “no taxicab shall bear in any manner any advertising or promotion of cigarettes or tobacco products. No taxicab company shall place or maintain, or cause or allow to be placed or maintained, any advertising or promotion of cigarettes or tobacco products on any of its taxicabs.”

Newsom said tobacco companies are using the taxicabs as a “loophole” to bypass a city law—that Newsom also wrote—restricting the location of tobacco billboards and prohibiting tobacco advertising in store windows.

Tom Lauria, spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, criticized the measure as “content-based censorship that flies in the face of the Constitution and First Amendment protection for commercial speech.”

He said: “The proposal indicates a singling out of a particular message for censorship. It would be more appropriate for the city to ban all advertising on taxicabs than to ban certain messages the city finds objectionable.”

Lauria said this measure is, to his organization's knowledge, the first “private sector ban” on tobacco advertising on transportation. “I think the city has basically invited a lawsuit by ignoring the constitutional protections for commercial speech,” he said.

Daniel Jaffe, executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, said: “This raises significant First Amendment issues. It has always been our position that unless advertising is specifically targeting young people, it should be allowed.”

Although the measure was introduced earlier this month, it is unclear when officials will vote on the proposal now before the city's Economic Development Committee.

Calls placed to Newsom were not returned.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.