MBTA’s alcohol ads trial balloon deflating fast
The MBTA needs every dollar that it can get, but probably not the ones from ads for “demon rum.” Several years ago, a youth-led, public health coalition lobbied MBTA general manager Rich Davey to dispense with alcohol advertising. Davey agreed. The ban is now three years old.
Many inches of snow later, the MBTA is on a drive to raise more revenue by any means necessary. According to WBUR, MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve, who has been tasked with the unenviable job of looking under rocks for revenue, came up with the what’s-old-is-new-again idea.
The MBTA’s advertising contracts expire this year, so it makes sense that the authority is looking at all ways to find new money. But the authority gets just a small portion of its overall advertising revenues from alcohol ads. With the potential for backlash high, backtracking on the ban may be a place that the T doesn’t want to go.
One of the key reasons why young people, substance abuse prevention advocates, and public health officials fought for the ban is that thousands of elementary and high school students travel on the MBTA every day. Young people are particularly susceptible to the types of images used by advertisers to sell alcohol.
In 2011, a high school student who fought for the ban told CommonWealth that white students who use yellow school buses don’t see those types of ads. “The MBTA is our school bus,” the student said. The prospect of ads re-appearing in minority neighborhoods would likely stir up a considerable amount of resentment at a time when the authority is making a concerted drive to listen to customer views.
With Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey leading a public campaign against the opioid epidemic, the proposal raises the question of why the MBTA would move in this direction now, and so shortly after the ads were removed from the system in the first place. The MBTA was in crisis in 2012, yet transportation officials saw fit to dispense with that revenue stream on principle.
The idea has sparked influential opposition. Kitty Dukakis and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who have both talked openly about their struggles with alcohol, oppose any new plan to accept alcohol ads. The idea also comes on the heels of former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy’s book about alcoholism in the Kennedy clan.
At Blue Mass Group, Sam Tracy, a consultant with the marijuana industry group 4Front Advisors, chimed in with this observation: “While this would certainly raise revenue…it wouldn’t be worth it,” he said. “If we want to reduce alcohol abuse and addiction, we should be doing more to restrict alcohol advertising, treating it the way we do tobacco.”
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