T pressed to ban ads for alcohol
Push is intended to protect teens

By Katheleen Conti

Boston Globe

May 17, 2007

Ask most teens about Tony Sinclair, and they'll be able to identify the fictional socialite featured in the latest Tanqueray advertising campaign. Parents who know about him would like to see the ads and other similarly packaged alcohol ads banished in Joe Camel-like proportions.

There is a push to get the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to ban alcohol advertising on the T in the same manner it snubbed tobacco in 1986 and then, last December, banned violent video games, those rated suitable only for those age 17 or older.

Pat Milano, a member of the Winthrop School Committee and coordinator for the nonprofit CASA -- Community Against Substance Abuse Inc. -- said the organization joined the effort to ban alcohol advertising on MBTA stations, trains, and buses because "It's the equivalent of us putting an alcohol ad on yellow school buses.

"We've all seen many alcohol ads and we're very concerned about those ads, the time of day they run, the images. They make it look fun and sexy. They're targeting a very young age group."

About 130 people, including Milano, attended a conference early this month hosted by the Massachusetts Banding Together Against Alcohol Advertising Collaborative at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Results from Winthrop's annual youth risk-behavior surveys show a significant spike in the number of students who admit drinking alcohol occurring between the eighth and ninth grades, Milano said. By the time those students are seniors in high school, 75 to 80 percent admit to drinking alcohol on a regular basis.

Although most Winthrop students don't ride the T to school, they might be exposed to ads at bus stops and on the outside of buses, said Amy Helburn, community health prevention specialist for The Medical Foundation, a Boston nonprofit. The foundation is part of the Banding Together collaborative, a coalition of 30 agencies, academic institutions, and nonprofits, including CASA, which came together in 2005 to ask the MBTA to ban the alcohol ads. At the time, T officials were working on renewing 10-year advertising contracts in the midst of a controversial 'wrap' campaign, where some buses were entirely covered in ads for products such as Bacardi, Helburn said.

Such advertising also affects suburban youth who ride the commuter rail into the city with their parents, Helburn said. There was a time when North Station "was literally draped in Johnnie Walker ads."

The MBTA did not return requests for comment. "If the advertisements do not violate the MBTA's court-approved guidelines, then there is no cause for rejecting them," MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in November. "The MBTA operates under a legislative mandate to maximize nonfare revenue."

Helburn said it's been "challenging to get the MBTA to cooperate because they're an independent authority" that raises money through advertising. "Their argument has been that they can't give up the revenue."

But she said the coalition found, through a 2005 Freedom of Information Act request, that of a 2004 budget of about $1.19 billion, alcohol advertisements contributed $1.3 million, or about 0.1 percent. The coalition also surveyed about 500 T riders in 2005, with 73 percent favoring a ban of alcohol ads. Eighty-two percent of those in favor of the ban were under the legal drinking age, according to the survey.

Amy Harris, executive director of Chelsea Alcohol/Substance Abuse Program, known as ASAP, which is not a part of the coalition, said Chelsea teens recently performed a survey of their peers on several MBTA routes from Chelsea to Boston.

"There were certain ads that kids really remember as 'cool ' that they thought were very appealing, particularly the Budweiser ones," Harris said. "Absolut is another and Tanqueray was the other one. Mike's Hard Lemonade, kids love stuff of that nature . . . . Any time you reduce some of the advertisement that people see, it doesn't cure the whole issue of overexposure, but with prevention you work on one thing at a time."

Helburn said the coalition has collected about 800 letters from people who support getting rid of the ads.

"We've been generating more interest with the legislators. As soon as the current budget season is over, we'd like to approach people in the transportation committee and the mental health and substance abuse committee to check this status that the T has, of being an independent authority."

Eric Helmuth, director of Internet communications for Join Together, another group within the coalition, said there is an online petition so people can write directly to Daniel A. Grabauskas, MBTA general manager. As of Monday, 1,325 entries were posted.

Helburn said T officials offered space for counter-advertising, but that wasn't what the coalition wanted.

"One of the most egregious ads we captured in a photograph was an ad that said, 'You can sleep when you're 30,' " Helburn said. "That's geared at 17- or 16-year-olds, because who else is going to think that 30 is so old. Certainly not a 25-year-old."