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Hub youth leaders speak out about unhealthy storefront ads

Talia Whyte | 7/28/2009, 11:49 a.m.

Leaders from Sociedad Latina and other youth-oriented community groups hosted a hearing at City Hall Monday to raise awareness about advertisements promoting unhealthy lifestyles, like smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, in the storefront windows of Boston establishments.

The youth presented members of the City Council with results from research they conducted on problems with the advertising — everything from how ads are placed in windows to the marked disparity in the racial makeup of neighborhoods in which unhealthy ads are prominently displayed.

During their presentation, the leaders pointed out stores’ frequent violations of the Boston Sign Code, which regulates signs in commercial and residential areas. The code states that only 30 percent of window space should have advertisements of any kind.

Based on their research in largely minority communities around Boston, however, the youth found that most stores surpass the 30 percent mark, with most of the ads promoting tobacco and alcohol use. Storefronts in the city’s white communities, on the other hand, seemed to have a lower amount of these ads.

The presenters concluded that the existing law shouldn’t be changed, but rather enforced in all communities equally.

“When kids are exposed to drugs and alcohol, they are most likely to use them,” said Jonathan Ondrejko, 15, of the Healthy Roslindale Coalition. “Tobacco and alcohol ads are really a problem among Boston youth.”

According to the University of Illinois at Chicago, 75 percent of teens visit a convenience store at least once a week, where they are routinely exposed to advertisements for tobacco, junk food and alcohol. Teens are more likely to be influenced to smoke and drink by cigarette and alcohol advertising than they are by peer pressure.

The average smoker picks up the habit by the age of 15. Approximately 33 percent of these new smokers are African American, 34 percent are Hispanic and 18 percent are white.

“Around 8,300 youth in Massachusetts start smoking every year,” said Brittany Chen, a project assistant with the Youth Action Initiative of The Medical Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to public health and medical research funding. “These kids are at great risk, and we need to protect them.”

During the hearing, nearly a dozen teens testified before the City Council, expressing their outrage at this problem.

“It is your responsibility to protect us,” said Shanaya Coke, 18, of the youth-led Breath of Life: Dorchester (BOLD) Teens organization.

Susan Rice, assistant commissioner of plans and zoning for the city’s Inspectional Services Department, said she agrees with the findings of the youth and wants to eradicate this problem. However, she said that most of the time it isn’t really the fault of the storeowner, because they don’t usually know about the laws regulating storefront signs. She also added that some storeowners are paid by tobacco and alcohol companies to strategically place ads in their windows.

“There is no law that says what can be advertised currently,” said Rice, “but we can reinforce the laws on the books about how much space they use. We should revisit this issue.”

City Councilors Sam Yoon, Michael Ross, Charles Yancey and Rob Consalvo agreed with Rice and said they will enact efforts on the local level. Consalvo said he was also concerned about the public safety side of covered storefront windows, arguing that police are unable to see inside if a crime were occurring.

“I commend the youth for bringing this issue forward,” Consalvo said. “I don’t believe that having these ads are good for the community.”