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Connecticut officials go on the offensive against tobacco billboards

By David Hudson
First Amendment Center

Government officials in Connecticut are waging war against the advertising of tobacco products at both the city and state levels.

Joe Grabarz, executive director of the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, says that at least seven cities in the state -- Fairfield, Bridgeport, New Haven, New London, Derby, Seymour and Orange -- have either proposed or passed legislation designed to limit or ban tobacco billboard advertising.

"We have been successful in defeating or delaying implementation of these ordinances in five cities, all except Orange and Seymour," Grabarz said. "All of these different ordinances are virtually the same; they all use the same boilerplate language, including the same wording in the preambles."

According to Grabarz, the test case will be a legal challenge filed against the ordinance in Orange.On July 2, Doug Montana, the owner of Modern Cigarette Vending, challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance in state court.

Anthony Bonadies, Montana's attorney, said that "there are two major elements in this law: a prohibition on the sale of cigarettes through vending machines and restrictions on outdoor advertising."

"Obviously, the ban on cigarette vending machines is the more immediate harm to my client," he said. "However, we will be challenging the other restrictions as well."

The ordinance states that "no person may place any sign, poster, placard, device, graphic display, or any other form of advertising that advertises cigarettes, tobacco or smokeless tobacco in publicly visible locations."This section does not apply to signs located more than 1,000 feet from any residential zone or area where children are usually present.

The law also requires any person who wishes to display a sign advertising a tobacco product to secure a written permit from Orange's "Sign Administrator," which Bonadies refers to as the "advertising czar."

Both Grabarz and Bonadies say the ordinance clearly violates commercial free-speech rights under the First Amendment and also under the state constitution, which provides even greater free-speech protection for citizens.

Orange's First Selectman Robert Sousa was out of his office today and unavailable for comment.

"The reason so many cities in Connecticut have proposed bans on outdoor tobacco advertising is because the state attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, has been using this as a political issue in an election year," Grabarz said.

"Our state attorney general was one of the attorney generals who reached a settlement with the tobacco companies with respect to national tobacco legislation that Congress never approved."

Blumenthal was in Washington, D.C., and could not be reached for comment.

However, this is not the first time that Blumenthal has gone after the advertising practices of tobacco companies.

In 1996, he filed a lawsuit, State of Connecticut v. Philip Morris, Inc., in state superior court against several large tobacco companies, charging them with violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.

Two weeks ago, Blumenthal filed court documents in the Philip Morris case, asking for an immediate trial.

"Our new strategy aims to undercut Big Tobacco's two key tactics: denial and delay," Blumenthal said in a statement. "Seeking a fast-track trial -- a rifle shot rather than a shotgun approach -- should stop the stalling that is Big Tobacco's M.O. We are preserving our monetary claims but setting them aside temporarily so we can immediately achieve the most important part of our case: halting the industry's pernicious and predatory illegal practices."

One target of Blumenthal's attack is tobacco billboards.He has sought a court order to ban them across Connecticut and also to prohibit the sale of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a school or playground.

Grabarz says there is a war being waged between government and the tobacco industry in Connecticut and elsewhere in the country. "Unfortunately, the victim in both the tobacco company settlements and the government lawsuits is the First Amendment," he said.

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