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Derrick Z. Jackson

Worcester fights smoking, sign by sign

Tony’s News, on Main Street in Worcester. The city is seeking to use the new federal Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act to ban all visible cigarette advertising. Tony’s News, on Main Street in Worcester. The city is seeking to use the new federal Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act to ban all visible cigarette advertising. (Ellen Harasimowicz for The Boston Globe)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / June 25, 2011

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WORCESTER’S NEW CAMPAIGN against tobacco began with local teenagers taking photographs of storefronts plastered with cigarette ads. If it ends the way it should, it will affirm the right of neighborhoods and cities all across the nation to take on serious threats to their residents’ health.

Worcester may be the first city in the nation to test the strength of the federal 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which allows states and localities to use health concerns over smoking to impose “specific bans or restrictions on the time, place, and manner’’ of cigarette advertising. The Worcester City Council voted this spring to ban tobacco brand advertising visible from streets, parks, and schools. Down would come all those Marlboro, Camel, and Newport ads seductively promising pleasure and status, ads that have turned corner storefronts into the most vile form of urban graffiti. Stores would be allowed to note that they sell cigarettes, but that is all.

If the ordinance goes into effect, it would represent a groundbreaking use of the 2009 law, which so far has received little scrutiny in court. Ten years ago, the US Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts cigarette advertising ban that was designed to restrict ads near schools but was judged by the high court as being too broad.

Worcester’s advertising ordinance was to go into effect this week. But given the precedent it would set, Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, and the National Association of Tobacco Outlets filed suit in federal court to kill the ordinance in the name of free speech. The city agreed to a stay pending a hearing, confident it can prevail in the name of public health.

“About five people a week die in Worcester from tobacco, compared to a total of 42 people in all of 2009 who died in car crashes in all of Worcester County,’’ Worcester city solicitor David Moore said in an interview. “If we were talking about five people dying a week from pharmaceuticals, no one would say government doesn’t have some kind of role in trying to regulate.’’

Moore likened the ordinance to speed limits on our roadways. Worcester certainly needs a speed bump on tobacco, because 1 of every 4 residents smokes, compared with 1 in 6 in Massachusetts.

“Actually, this is a relatively mild step,’’ he said. “We’re not banning smoking or the sale of cigarettes. But we read the federal law to say that when there is a substantial public interest and smoking is very substantial, a city is allowed leeway. We’re not banning advertising just because we don’t like the smell of cigarettes on our clothes. We’re doing it because cigarettes are a fatal product.’’

The best part about this law is that it was inspired by the very targets of cigarette advertising. For several years, teenagers in the HOPE Coalition — the initials stand for Healthy Options for Prevention and Education — have tried to educate peers and politicians about the tragedy of smoking. In 2006, the coalition began documenting, through photos and a computerized mapping system, which stores in the city sold tobacco. The result was visual proof that storefront cigarette advertising was concentrated in low-income communities of color.

HOPE advisor Laurie Ross, a professor of community development and planning at Clark University, says that, because of students’ indignation over the findings, “the kids went on a campaign that just didn’t stop.’’

The teens were so determined, they kept bringing their complaints to the council, even though federal law seemed stacked against local efforts to ban storefront advertising. They kept up their efforts until Moore realized that the 2009 act finally gave the city powers on advertising.

“They really did a great job at getting our attention,’’ Moore said. “They would come to council meetings with ‘Rest In Peace’ tombstone signs saying how many people die from tobacco.’’

These youths, in an inspiring act of democracy, not only got Worcester’s attention, but that of the entire cigarette industry as well. We will soon know if the 2009 act was truly meant to protect teens — or if it lets Big Tobacco continue to peddle death at every storefront, as America’s most insidious graffiti artist.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com