Working at Cross Purposes? MTA Bans Alcohol Ads on Buses, City Allows Them At Bus Shelters

Consider a common L.A.  scene:  A group of teenagers going to or from school is hanging around a bus shelter, waiting to catch the next MTA bus.  The shelter is one of those new “street furniture” models with advertisements, and this one happens to display a large ad for a brand of beer.

The bus finally appears.  It too, carries ads—they might be for movies, or TV shows, or fast food—but none will be for beer, wine, or liquor.  Despite pressure from CBS Outdoor, the company that contracts for transit advertising, the MTA last week reaffirmed a policy of not allowing alcohol advertising on its buses and trains.  MTA board chairman Ara Najarian said he had “personal objections to alcohol advertising” and added that he thinks it “encourages behavior that is not productive…”

The MTA first adopted a ban on tobacco and alcohol advertising on public transit in 1997 at the urging of then-board member and L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, who called such a ban a matter of good public health policy.  But the city of L.A. didn’t follow suit in 2001 when it contracted with a joint venture of CBS Outdoor and JC Decaux to install thousands of  items of street furniture in return for a share of the revenue from ads displayed at the bus shelters and “public amenity kiosks.”

Despite studies by public health organizations that have shown a connection between outdoor alcohol advertising and alcohol abuse, particularly by underage youth,  the only reference to such advertising in the city’s street furniture contract is an appended letter from CBS/Decaux that says, “We will limit alcohol advertising to furniture locations that are in non-sensitive areas and that follow the City’s zoning laws.”  What constitutes a non-sensitive area is left to the imagination.

In its latest push to get ads for beer and wine on MTA buses and trains, CBS Outdoor offered a 50-50 split of revenue, estimated to be $500,000 per year.   A posting on County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s website blog quoted senior vice president Rich Ament as calling the alcoholic beverages “essentially a recession-proof product.”  He added that “Beer and wine advertising is everywhere.  The only place it doesn’t exist is on the L.A. transit system.”

In fact, no other metropolitan area in California allows this advertising on their public transit, although a survey by the Marin Institute showed violations of the prohibition in San Francisco.

Some public health groups have been particularly concerned about alcohol ads on public transit, because it is heavily used by teenagers and others believed to be most susceptible to the messages.  In Boston, for example, such ads are allowed, and have been the subject of recent protests by persons concerned about alcohol abuse and underage drinking.

Dennis Hathaway

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