Until recently one of the glories of Washington was a near total lack of visual clutter from large billboards. By act of Congress they were ruled out in 1931. But now, after a legal challenge, they're back. Billboards are slowly spreading like a pox across our city, the largest number plugging cigarettes and booze, products channeled -- by federal law -- off our airways and onto our landscape.

Public Health Commissioner Reed Tuckson says the last thing District teen-agers need are billboards advertising rolling papers near D.C. schools. The same could be said of billboards extolling the virtues of alcohol and tobacco.

Cigarettes are the single most advertised product on billboards. Booze is next. A third of all billboards nationwide tout tobacco and alcoholic beverages. If you live in an inner-city black neighborhood, the problem is acute. There are more billboards in these neighborhoods than others, and a much higher percentage of them plug cigarettes and booze than other products.

For example, in St. Louis, a city survey found nearly three times as many billboards in black neighborhoods as in white neighborhoods. Of these, 62 percent advertised cigarettes and booze, compared with 36 percent in white neighborhoods. A San Francisco survey produced nearly identical results.

Why the alarm? Because heart disease, cancer and cirrhosis strike disproportionately at blacks. For example, the mortality rate for smoking-related illnesses among blacks is 40 percent higher than that of whites.

Billboards are the most intrusive and offensive form of advertising. Unlike other advertisements that can be eliminated at the flip of a switch or the turn of a page, there is no possible way to turn off a billboard. Children are particularly susceptible to the ill effects of billboards. Last year, when students at the Rafael Hernandez Elementary School in Boston posed for their class picture, a giant billboard loomed behind them. The students had learned about the dangers of smoking in health class, but the billboard over their playground equated smoking with sophistication and success. Giant billboards like those along New York Avenue in D.C. are visible up to one-half mile away; and they lure children with powerful images of sex, glamor, wealth and athletic achievement.

Every year 2 million children, average age 13, start smoking. These children are the replacement smokers who allow the tobacco industry to maintain sales despite the fact that millions of Americans have quit smoking and millions of others have died prematurely because of cigarette-induced diseases.

The best way to maintain the smoking population is to reinforce the cue to smoke in as many places as possible. Billboards serve this function. As the most visible and ubiquitous form of cigarette advertising, outdoor ads are unique in their ability to reinforce smoking as a social norm.

Just try going to a Redskins game. If you take public transportation you'll see cigarette ads on bus shelters, on the sides of buses, on the top of taxis, on Metro platforms and in the trains. Drive your car and you'll see cigarette ads lining the streets. Either way, when you arrive at RFK you'll be forced to look at enormous cigarette billboards that dominate the stadium.

Apart from health worries, many people say they are offended by the sheer volume of tobacco and booze advertising in inner-city neighborhoods.

Courts have long held that government has a right to control billboards to protect public safety and welfare. In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled that a community may constitutionally ban all "commercial billboards" as a legitimate time, place and manner restriction on speech. Chief Justice Warren Burger put it this way: "a city has the power to regulate visual clutter in much the same manner it can regulate any other feature of its environment; pollution is not limited to the air we breathe and the water we drink; it can equally offend the eye and ear."

If the D.C. Council wants to do something about urban blight and public health, it should start with billboards. Billboard controls would benefit those interested in seeing an uncluttered view of our city. But billboard controls also make sense as a meaningful and constitutional way to curb advertising for products that cause death and disease.

-- Edward T. McMahon is executive director of the Coalition for Scenic Beauty.