Tobacco Billboard Undercuts Anti-smoking Effort

Attorney General Spitzer today denounced a Pennsylvania company's billboard advertising of discount cigarettes in Orange County, New York, and called for the immediate removal of the sign.

Spitzer said that a billboard placed by "GO24" -- a company based in Matamoros, Pennsylvania -- undercuts anti-smoking efforts in New York and violates the spirit of the comprehensive Master Settlement Agreement reached last year with major tobacco companies.

"GO24" has a billboard on Route 211, just west of Route 17 in Middletown, giving the company's website address, toll-free telephone number and business location. The company accepts Internet and telephone orders for pick-up only, and is not yet shipping cigarettes by mail, so the purpose of the billboard is to lure consumers in the Middletown area to drive across the nearby Pennsylvania border to purchase discount cigarettes.

"When New York and other states throughout the country settled their lawsuits against the tobacco manufacturers in 1998, the most important accomplishment was the prohibition against advertising and marketing activities aimed at children," Spitzer said. "Billboards that advertised tobacco products were explicitly prohibited, because they are easily viewed by children traveling in cars and school buses on our roadways. This billboard is directly contrary to the public health purpose of the settlement agreement, and undercuts our continuing efforts to reduce underage tobacco use."

Spitzer noted that although the tobacco settlement specifically bans all billboards and other outdoor advertising of tobacco products, it is only binding upon the tobacco manufacturers who signed the agreement, and not other tobacco distributors or retailers.

Spitzer proposed legislation earlier this year to expand the tobacco settlement's provisions to other tobacco sellers, but that legislation has not yet been enacted into law.

"I am calling upon this tobacco retailer to remove its billboard immediately, and if they fail to do so, then the company that owns the billboard should refuse to accept any more tobacco advertisements," Spitzer said.

"In addition, I am calling upon the tobacco manufacturers and distributors to refuse to sell any tobacco products to this retailer. When the tobacco manufacturers signed the settlement, they agreed not only to remove all billboard advertisements, but they also made a commitment to help discourage underage tobacco use, and they can prove that commitment by cutting off sales to this company."

Spitzer noted that a similar situation arose in the spring of 1999, when the Wawa Food Markets chain -- which has 500 stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia -- placed billboards advertising Marlboro cigarettes. Those billboards were immediately condemned by Attorneys General and health advocates throughout the country as a circumvention of the outdoor advertising restrictions set forth in the settlement agreement. Wawa Food Markets voluntarily agreed to remove the billboards several days later.

Spitzer also called upon the State Legislature to enact legislation extending the tobacco settlement's prohibitions to tobacco retailers and distributors. "The settlement prevents tobacco manufacturers from using cartoon characters, free samples, billboards, sports sponsorships, branded merchandise and other marketing techniques targeted at children, but there is nothing preventing tobacco retailers from utilizing these same egregious tactics," Spitzer said. "We need to protect our children from a lifetime of tobacco addiction by closing this loophole in our state laws."

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