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R.J. Reynolds challenging city's effort to restrict posting of tobacco ads

The nation's second-largest cigarette company is challenging Buffalo's push to wipe out tobacco ads around schools, playgrounds and day care centers.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company claims the city's crackdown on cigarette ads posted in store windows and outside businesses tramples on First Amendment protections. The company, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a similar case in Massachusetts, is threatening to sue the city if it continues to enforce a city law that bans tobacco ads within 1,000 feet of facilities frequented by children.

"It is exceedingly likely that the City of Buffalo's tobacco advertising and promotion ordinances violate federal pre-emption principles as well as the First Amendment," wrote Chad A. Readler, an attorney with Jones Day, which represents R.J. Reynolds. "Not only does [the Massachusetts case] raise serious questions about the restrictions' validity, but the City of Buffalo also faces the risk of being ordered to pay Reynolds' attorney fees should the matter proceed to litigation."

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello reacted angrily to the company's threat.

"I couldn't care less what R.J. Reynolds says. Let them fight it," he said. "We have to start recognizing that cigarettes kill. If they don't like what we're doing, tough luck."

"He should care what the U.S. Supreme Court has to say about the matter," countered David P. Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds.

He cited federal laws that prohibit localities from imposing their own rules on cigarette advertising.

City Corporation Counsel Michael B. Risman said lawyers will dissect the 2001 case in Massachusetts to see if the U.S. Supreme Court decision would have any impact on Buffalo's crackdown.

This month, inspectors began visiting dozens of neighborhood grocery stores that are near schools, community centers, playgrounds, day care facilities and other restricted areas. More than 40 businesses in the Niagara District were checked, and all of them violated the tobacco ad restrictions. Most owners took down the signs the same day, said inspector Vincent P. Ferraraccio. He said follow-up visits will be made starting next week, and he expects the crackdown to move into other parts of the city.

Many stores that have yet to be inspected continue to ignore the ad restrictions. For example, Ellicott Council Member Brian C. Davis' office received a complaint Tuesday about cigarette ads in a business that is near a school and a human services program for mothers and children.

An anti-smoking activist is encouraging the city to continue the crackdown. Judith M. Anderson is with the Minority Health Coalition, a group of health and human services agencies. While Anderson is unfamiliar with the case cited by R.J. Reynolds, she said she believes Buffalo has a duty to enforce a law that is on its books. Anderson said it is disturbing to see the facades of some stores plastered with cigarette ads when those businesses are so close to schools.

"Kids are bombarded with these ads. They can't turn their heads without seeing them," she said. "We think [tobacco companies] are targeting young people and are trying to build a market for the future."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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