A Sobering Plan to End Subway Alcohol Advertising


It’s legal to drink a beer on the LIRR, but it might soon be illegal to advertise them on commuter rail line. A Brooklyn lawmaker says banning alcohol ads would be the first step toward prohibiting the consumption of booze as well.

By John DeSio

Alcohol advertising might pump much-needed revenue into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s offers, but Brooklyn Assemblyman Felix Ortiz is moving to stop such spirituous solicitations, all in the name of public health and, of course, the children.

Ortiz, who chairs the Assembly’s committee on alcoholism and drug abuse, has introduced legislation in Albany that would seek to ban advertisements for alcohol products on public transportation. Ortiz’s bill comes on the heels of a new report from the Marin Institute surveying the advertising policies of 25 mass transit agencies across the United States. Only two agencies, one being the MTA, specifically allow for alcohol ads to be placed on public transportation.

The Marin Institute chastised the MTA in its report for what it saw as hypocritical policies relating to its ad sales, noting that the MTA bans pornography-related advertising because it is illegal for minors to purchase such products but does not make the same distinction for booze.

Ortiz said the health risks posed by alcohol should be enough to make such advertisements unpalatable to the MTA, and further discussed the number of children and teenagers who use public transportation each day and are subjected to those liquor ads.

“I think that by having this type of advertisement so visible like that, where we do have so many young kids and teenagers traveling and using our public transportation is unacceptable,” said Ortiz, who described his bill as part of the ongoing fight against underage drinking. “We need to send a clear message that we’re not going to allow public transportation to be used to promote and advertise alcohol to our underage group in New York State.”

But with a potential fare hike looming, is it wise to rip any money away from the MTA? Agency spokesperson Jeremy Soffin said that the MTA sells roughly $100 million in transit advertising per year, with between three to five percent of it being alcohol related. While the bill would cut into the MTA’s advertising revenues, Soffin pointed out that it was unclear just how much, since some of the alcohol advertising would surely be replaced.

Ortiz felt the revenue loss would be insignificant and that there were other ways for the MTA to put together revenue to prevent a fare hike, pointing to a August report by City Comptroller Bill Thompson that identified $728 million in revenues that the MTA could use to delay a fare hike through 2009.

“It’s not going to have any negative impact,” said Ortiz, who added that given the large amount of money spent on drug and alcohol treatment in New York the MTA could absorb a $3-$5 million hit in the name of greater public health concerns.

Though Ortiz is confident that his bill will become law, other Albany legislators are not so sure, largely due to the aforementioned concerns over lost revenue for the MTA. Even if it did pass, it would not mean the immediate end of alcohol on public transportation. Right now commuters can grab a cold beer on a Metro North or Long Island Railroad train, both operated by the MTA, and on the Staten Island Ferry, which is run by the City’s Department of Transportation.

Ortiz said he would absolutely work to ban the sale of alcohol on mass transit as well, calling his push against advertising only the beginning of his cocktail crusade.

“I know its about public responsibility, and that people should be responsible to buy or not to buy, its their choice,” said Ortiz. “But I do believe it is government’s intention to really reduce the damage that has been created already by alcoholism, and underage drinking. The time has come to send a clear message that we are going to have an alcohol-free zone in our subway system.”