Public Health Commissioner Reed V. Tuckson says the last thing teen-agers need during the District's drug epidemic is billboards urging them to roll their own.
That's why Tuckson is trying to get the makers of Top cigarette rolling papers to remove two billboard advertisements within sight of Dunbar and McKinley high schools.
"It's inappropriate," Tuckson said. "We are in the middle of the worst drugs epidemic this city has ever faced and we don't need to have public space occupied with advertising for drug paraphernalia. I am constrained by freedom of speech from doing anything about it, but the company ought to be embarrassed."
Republic Tobacco Co., the Chicago company that makes Top papers, isn't embarrassed, but is willing to move the signs. Warren Schoening, the company's sales manager, said the company does not seek customers of high school age and did not choose to place its billboards near schools.
Schoening said the company buys billboard space from Rollins Outdoor Advertising, a Maryland company that chooses specific locations.
"Their target market is lower-income people who buy rolling papers and roll their own cigarettes to save money," said David Powers, operations manager for Rollins. Powers said the billboard company chose to place ads for Top at New Jersey Avenue and P Street NW, a block from Dunbar, and on Eckington Place near Q Street NE, downhill from McKinley, because they are in low-income areas.
"It's no big deal," Powers said. "There's always something that's going to rub somebody the wrong way."
Schoening, who said Top is intended for use with tobacco and not for smoking illegal drugs, said he would ask Rollins to move the ads if Tuckson requests the change.
The posters, which depict a package of the product, say "Your TOP Choice in smoking pleasure." The billboard near Dunbar has been defaced and reads "STOP smoking."
School spokesman Maurice Sykes said the billboards have not sparked complaints. "People have a right to advertise," he said.
And Louise Buckner, assistant principal at Dunbar, said she was not aware that the billboard exists. She asked several students who were near her office whether they knew about the billboard; none did.
"And these are persons who are in the know," she said. "I just don't think students pay any attention to signs. Maybe adults do."