Is Alcohol the New Tobacco?

Written By Jordan J. O’Connor

On October 25, 2017, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) decided to ban all alcohol advertisements on its public transportation, set to take effect January 1, 2018. While this may only be a regional change, New York City’s MTA is the country’s largest transportation authority, and many people are wondering whether this will spark country-wide changes, similar to the ban on tobacco advertisements in the early 1990s.

How are these bans implemented?

Alcohol bans by transit authority have been enforced through three levels of policymaking: (1) contract requirement, (2) agency policy, and (3) government policy. Contract requirements are stated in the contract between the MTA and the advertiser. Agency policies are formally adopted by the administering body of the MTA, i.e., the board of directors. Finally, government policies are codified by the government body that has dominance over the MTA. This decision to ban alcohol advertisement on New York City’s public transportation came from the board of directors of the MTA.

New York City is, by no means, a trailblazer in this arena. Consequently, advocacy groups and opponents alike have been looking to other cities to make their best estimation as to how successful this ban will or will not be.

For example, stemming from a gubernatorial executive order, Maryland sought to prohibit alcohol advertisements on public transportation state-wide. Similarly, big cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia imposed bans on alcohol advertising.

Though the aforementioned bans remain intact, two different large cities have overturned their bans. Washington D.C. overturned its ban on alcohol advertising in 2015, citing economic necessity as the reasoning. Chicago Transit Authority did the same; however, it chose to keep some restrictions in place, such as continuing to prohibit alcohol advertisements on buses and preventing alcohol advertisements from exceeding 9.99% of total advertising on the Chicago transit system at any one time.

So, is New York City’s ban a good thing?

Advocates of the ban have long compared it to tobacco ads, claiming that the advertisements are encouraging underage drinking. Alcohol ads, like the previous tobacco ads, portray typical users as attractive, young, and healthy people who like to have fun. Advocates have also argued that the ads target minority and lower-income communities, as was previously done by the tobacco companies.

In addition, one of the groups that was pushing for the ban, “Building Alcohol Ad-Free Transit,” found ad placements that it felt had the potential for sending harmful messaging to children who use the MTA as their means of transportation to school. Specifically, the group’s website displays examples, such as one where a poster for the kid-friendly movie “The Lorax” appears next to an ad for Michelob Ultra.

In contrast, opponents of the ban state that the real party affected by the ban is the alcohol industry. “Science and research show that there is no benefit to banning this type of advertising,” Jay Hibbard, vice president of government relations for the Distilled Spirits Council, said in an interview with the New York Times. “This is not advertising on school buses….This is advertising on a public transportation system.”

Opponents also argue that, statistically, New York’s underage drinking has declined by over 20 percent in the last ten years, and binge-drinking has reached an all-time low. Opponents use these and other facts to assert that it is the parents, and not the advertisements, that have the greatest influence on underage drinking.

So, will the New York City MTA ban on alcohol advertising stand the test of time, or will it crumble? Only time will tell.

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Sources Cited

Luis Ferré-Sadurní, M.T.A. Will Ban Alcohol Advertising on Buses and Subways, N.Y. Times (Oct. 25, 2017).

Danielle Furfaro, MTA will ban all alcohol advertisements from stations, N.Y. Post (Oct. 25, 2017).

Lyndsey Layton, New FDA rules will greatly restrict tobacco advertising and sales, Wash. Post (Mar. 19, 2010).

Paul Dugan, Metro board clears way for alcohol advertising in transit system, Wash. Post (Nov. 19, 2015).

E.J. Schultz, As alcohol ads sprawl elsewhere, New York buses and trains go dry, AdAge (Oct. 26, 2017).

Alcohol Justice, These Bus Ads Don’t Stop For Children: Alcohol Advertising on Public Transit (Oct. 2013).

Nixon signs legislation banning cigarette ads on TV and radio, History: This Day In History.

Disc. Tobacco City & Lottery, Inc. v. United States, 674 F.3d 509 (6th Cir. 2012).

Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, H.R. 1256, 111th Cong. (2009).