Billboards Promoting Cannabis Raise Concerns | Scenic America
Billboards Promoting Cannabis Raise Concerns

With recreational marijuana now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, dispensaries are looking for ways to reach new customers—and many of them are turning to outdoor advertising.

In an article that first appeared earlier this month in the Lansing State Journal, reporter Mike Ellis called out the boom in billboards promoting cannabis across the mitten state. He cited data from the Out of Home Advertising Association of America showing that cannabis outdoor advertising grew by 31% nationwide during the first half of 2022, representing one of the largest categories of growth.

According to Kantar tracking data, 42% of cannabis advertising is done on billboards and other out-of-home placements—and there are many reasons why marijuana purveyors find the channel appealing. Outdoor advertising doesn’t come with the same content restrictions as digital, social media, TV, or radio. Magazines, newspapers, and brochures can be carried across state lines, raising issues in states where recreational marijuana use is illegal.

This surge in marijuana billboards brings up important questions about the appropriateness of cannabis-related content along the side of our roads, which invariably reaches children, teens, and other impressionable audiences. Similar consumer concerns prompted a ban on outdoor advertising for tobacco products in most states in 1997 with the passage of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.

Outdoor advertising industry officials argue that “customers are feeling more comfortable than ever about the presence of the category,” as noted in a study of cannabis advertising by OUTFRONT, one of the largest players in the business. Proponents also argue that while tobacco and alcohol advertisements promote specific products or brands, cannabis ads generally promote individual business locations.

But larger public health questions remain—particularly given the nature of outdoor advertising, which often catches the attention of young people by its very placement and design. Similar sentiments prompted California Gov. Gavin Newsom to veto a bill that would have allowed marijuana businesses to advertise on billboards along most highways in the state last October.

Addressing this concern, the article cites a study by University of Michigan professor Ashley Gearhardt, who has studied the impacts of alcohol, tobacco, and fast-food advertising on teenagers. Her research hints at similar patterns of teens adopting cannabis. Based on this evidence, she argues that billboards should be off the table for marijuana companies and related services.

As the cannabis industry grows, Scenic America agrees that marijuana billboards have no place on the nation’s roadways.

“Billboards don’t belong on our streets or in our communities. They make our roads more dangerous, destroy our scenic beauty, and bring down our property values while blasting our children and teenagers with advertising for products or services that may not be good for them,” said Scenic America President Mark Falzone. “Content-based restrictions have been deemed unconstitutional, so the only way to effectively ban these messages from our highways is to take down the billboards. Scenic America stands ready to assist communities that want to take that step.”

Related Topics