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Billboards: An insidious cancer

The leading presidential candidates have made their positions known on a number of issues. So far, they’ve spoken extensively about poverty alleviation, tax reform, China’s creeping invasion and even on traffic. However, one issue deserves to be in the forefront of discussion too – illegal billboards.

On the surface, illegal billboards don’t seem like a major issue, at least not important enough to be of national concern. But it is. Any issue that threatens the well-being of the citizenry is something that should be taken seriously. See, illegal billboards have spread like undiagnosed cancer. Quietly and under the radar, it has eaten away at our quality of life whilst being a safety hazard to all of us. It is insidious in that it is like piles of trash that sits in the middle of our living rooms. We pass it everyday and have somehow learned to ignore it. Sooner or later, we’ve become desensitized to its stench , ugliness and health threats. This is how billboards have become to us, especially those living in Metro Manila.

As of 2012, there were already more than 2,000 billboards along EDSA alone and close to 5,000 within the expanse of Metro Manila. That number must have increased by at least 30 percent by now. Outdoor advertising companies have been laughing all the way to the bank while our poor citizens bear the brunt of safety risks, health hazards, environmental damage and quality-of-life deprivation. Allow me to explain why billboards are so damaging to us.

First let’s talk about its effect on our health. As it is, Metro Manila is already an over-crowded city choking on its own pollution. Billboards exacerbate the situation by blocking our airspace and trapping carbon dioxide from flowing out of our roads and highways. We end up breathing the toxic air. Trapped air creates a hazardous greenhouse effect that threaten the respiratory health of our citizens. Records show that respiratory maladies are already the number one ailment of Metro Manila residents.

Billboards are also a threat to public safety. Unknown to many, our building code calls for substantial easements between billboards and roads, electric poles and other adjacent structures. It also prohibits signs from obstructing windows and fire exits on buildings. Yet, thousands of billboards have been erected in violation of the national building code and continue to operate in technical violation. We, the citizens, have paid dearly for this. Lets not forget what happened when Typhon Milenyo struck…. a billboard along the Magallanes interchange came crashing down on a passenger bus causing death and injury. Another billboard fell on a van along EDSA also causing the death of its driver. Government officials tried to crack down on the billboard operators but where overcome by powerful outdoor advertising lobby group.

Billboards are also damaging to the environment. These giant signs utilize massive amounts of tarpaulin, a material that is not biodegradable. When disposed, they occupy colossal amounts of space in our landfills. Worse, when burnt, they produce noxious, toxic gases that poison our air.

Even our flora and fauna are not spared. Studies show that excessive artificial light emanating from billboards destroy the ecological balance that allow our plants and animal life to thrive. This is one of the reasons why plants along our highways die after just a few weeks. Moreover, the artificial lights from the billboard inhibits the production of nitrate oxide, a vital gas produced by plants that helps fight smog.

Billboards are also guzzlers of electric power, a finite resource that we do not have much of. Do the math… each billboard requires an average of 5,000 watts to illuminate its surface. Multiply this by the 5,000 billboards in the Metro and the total power they collectively consume is a staggering 25 million watts. Its ironic that outdoor advertising companies are allowed to squander our electric power while the citizenry are asked to minimize its use.

In terms of our quality of life, billboard deprive the citizenry from their basic right to enjoy the natural beauty of their environs – our architecture and whatever greenery is left. Billboard make the city appear cluttered and disorganized since they are erected without rhyme, reason or zoning. And despite the building code mandating a standard billboard size which I believe is 80 square meters, some outdoor advertising companies mock our laws by erecting signs as large as 2,000 square meters. Lets face it, billboards make the city ugly and living in this environment eats up on our quality of life.

Compare how pleasant it is to live and work in areas without billboards like The Fort or the Makati Business district to the cluttered, grimy ugliness of EDSA. We deserve better conditions in our public spaces. Why should outdoor advertising companies be the sole beneficiary of the airspace along our major thoroughfares?

REGULATIONS

Even as far back as December 21, 1915, Supreme Court Justice Cayetano Arellano passed a decision outlawing billboard in our cities. In his final verdict, Arellano affirmed that every citizen had the right to enjoy the view of the sky, the landscape and the architecture of the city as it enhances one’s quality of life. He further stated that the Filipino people deserve a beautiful capital to advance their sense of national pride. Justice Arellano’s judgment was written almost a hundred years ago. Even then, it was acknowledged that billboards are a menace to the city and do nothing to enrich the lives of the people living in them.

When large scale printing on tarpaulin material became both accessible and affordable, billboards began to multiply in our cities. There was too much money to be made for the outdoor advertising companies, the land or building owner, the city and all those paid to turn a blind eye on the building code violations

In 2010, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) was given the mandate to regulate billboards in the city. Acting as the enforcing agency of the Department of Public Works & Highways, the MMDA assumed the power to grant permits for new billboards, renew licenses of existing ones and dismantle those that are in violation of the national building code. With its new mandate, the MMDA went on an all-out assault to remove illegal billboards from our thoroughfares. The assault didn’t last three months.

This is because the billboard industry is controlled by cash-rich Outdoor Advertising Companies. They are the entities that lease (or own) the properties from where the billboards stand and the entities that act as the lessors to the advertisers. They are responsible for constructing the metal frames and obtaining the necessary permits from both LGU’s. These Outdoor Advertising Companies have banded together to form the Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines (OAAP). This precedes another grouping of billboard operators called the Outdoor Media Advocacy Group (OMAG). For all intents and purposes, both the OAAP and OMAG are lobby groups created to protect the interest of this lucrative industry.

The OAAP sought the intervention of the courts to prevent the MMDA from regulating their industry. A Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) was granted in favor of the powerful OAAP.

While the TRO was eventually lifted, members of the OAAP continued to bombard the MMDA with court cases to prevent them from enforcing the regulations on outdoor advertising. This is the reason why billboards, whether or not in compliance with the building code, continue to mushroom all over the city with little recourse from the MMDA.

Local governments, too, are of no help. Theoretically, they are suppose to cooperate with the MMDA in controlling the billboard menace. Unfortunately, they too are financial beneficiaries. They have opted to enjoy the short-term benefits of a cash windfall rather than protect the health and welfare of their constituents.

I am not insinuating that we should ban billboards altogether. All I am saying is that there should be sensible zoning, uniformity in size, better spacing and strict conformity to higher standards of building specifications to ensure structural integrity. In short, that they conform to the building code.

At this point, only Malacañang can take control of the situation since the OAAP has become too rich and too powerful for the MMDA and local governments to handle.  They are no match. This is why the billboard menace needs to be made a campaign  issue.

Andrew is an economist, political analyst and businessman. He is a 20-year veteran in the hospitality and tourism industry. For comments and reactions, e-mail andrew_rs6@yahoo.com. More of his business updates are available via his Facebook page (Andrew J. Masigan). Follow Andrew on Twitter @aj_masigan.