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Let's target more vices than smoking

I am all for stopping young kids from smoking. Nicotine is addictive. The pull is especially obvious on cold winter days, when patios are filled with folks ducking out for a quick cigarette fix.

So, in concept, I am all for the city's idea of banning poster-size cigarette ads in delis and corner store windows near schools. Beyond that, stores selling cigarettes would pay a small licensing fee. Tobacco companies also would pay the city $1,000 for every brand sold in Buffalo -- potentially raising $300,000 to hire a platoon of inspectors.

The aim is to cut the appeal of cigarettes to kids, especially in grimmer neighborhoods.

I think it is a good idea. But from what I saw, there are worse vices in the inner city than Viceroys.

I took a ride Monday through some of Buffalo's battered streets. I drove past two dozen delis and corner stores. For all the tobacco chatter, cigarette ads were the least of the legal vices plastered on storefront windows.

Indeed, given the scarcity of cigarette ads, these "tobacco inspectors" would have time to double as tour guides and crossing guards. I do not mean to sound cynical, but -- particularly given City Hall's affection for patronage -- it sounds like a jobs program as much as a frontal assault on cigarettes.

Most of the places I passed -- on a route from Seneca-Babcock up Fillmore and around Broadway, Sycamore and Genesee -- did not have a single cigarette poster. Only one deli, on Broadway near Fillmore, had more than two. Most of the prime window space at these stores is covered with ads for beer, hard lemonade and the state-run lottery.

We all know that cigarettes are bad for you, and addicts start young. But on the mean streets, alcohol and gambling wreak more short-term havoc -- and bring their own longer-term health threats -- than a pack of Newports.

The half-dozen people I spoke with Monday seconded my emotion. I met Shameka Davis near Broadway and Fillmore.

"Look around. We got bigger fish to fry around here than cigarette ads," said Davis, 32, who quit smoking five years ago. "What about all the signs for beer and hard lemonade? That's where I see the problem. People get all drunk and act up. And drinking comes with all sorts of things: Diabetes. Heart disease. Alcoholism. You see people passed out from drinking all day in the sun."

A few blocks from Broadway-Fillmore is a giant billboard featuring a tuxedoed P. Diddy plugging Ciroc vodka -- touted as "The Art of Celebration." Never has a mind-altering, damaging-in-excess substance looked so glamorous. Conversely, cigarette ads long ago disappeared from billboards, part of the tobacco lawsuit settlement.

From Baltimore to Oakland, numerous cities have banned or limited liquor ads on inner-city billboards. How about Buffalo?

But the legal vice that is most plastered on the windows of East Side delis is not cigarettes or alcohol. It is ads for N.Y. Lotto and its variations. If I had a dollar for every N.Y. Lotto sign I saw Monday in corner store windows, I wouldn't have to dream.

"I know people who have next to nothing and they're still playing $20 worth of scratch-offs," said Davis, a student at Bryant & Stratton College. "Or they're buying $60 worth of numbers. It's ridiculous."

Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with tightening the screws on tobacco. It just seems that alcohol and gambling are higher than Camels on the short-term damage list on these streets.

If the city is really serious about undoing some damage, it ought to expand its assault on vice.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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