Emanuel says Big Tobacco can stall his plan to curb teen smoking, but they can’t defeat it

SHARE Emanuel says Big Tobacco can stall his plan to curb teen smoking, but they can’t defeat it

Big Tobacco and its City Council allies can delay plans to raise Chicago’s smoking age from 18 to 21, slap a $6 million tax on cigars, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco and ban coupons and discounts, but they won’t be able to stop it, a defiant Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday.

Emanuel fired back at his critics after a handful of aldermen used a parliamentary maneuver to delay an ordinance that the mayor had amended to appease aldermen concerned about the black-market sale of loose cigarettes and the serious crime that comes with it.

For five years, Emanuel has pursued a sweeping anti-smoking agenda that has driven the teen smoking rate down to 10.7 percent. Now that a “tobacco-free generation” is an “attainable goal,” Emanuel said he’s not about to stop now — even after Wednesday’s setback.

“They can try to delay but they will not defeat the effort to put Chicago’s children on the right path. . . . You can’t defeat it because the votes are there,” Emanuel said.

“I saw my mother personally struggle with this. And I made a commitment that, in my public life, I was going to work to end smoking by children. . . . And I know . . . the attempt by the tobacco industry to not only lure kids and have them addicted to tobacco products, but I’ve seen in Congress how some people can also get addicted to their . . . money. City Council will pass this ordinance because it’s right to help kids quit smoking or never start.”

For a while Wednesday, it appeared that Emanuel had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

To appease recalcitrant aldermen, the mayor agreed to double the fine for the sale of loose cigarettes — to $5,000 for the first offense and $10,000 for repeat offenses — and use some of the money generated by the new tobacco taxes to pay for smoking cessation programs in addition to programs for incoming high school freshmen and at-risk 8th graders.

For the first time, black-market cigarette sellers would also face the possibility of up to six months in jail.

In addition, Emanuel agreed to step up city and police enforcement against the sale of single cigarettes known as “loosies” and report back to aldermen every year on the progress of those crackdowns.

All of those changes were enough to persuade the City Council’s Finance Committee to approve the latest in a series of mayoral crackdowns on teen smoking. The vote was 22-to-9.

“No” votes were cast by the following aldermen: Pat Dowell (3rd), Leslie Hairston (5th), Matt O’Shea (19th), Willie Cochran (20th), Mike Zalewski (23rd), Emma Mitts (37th), Nick Sposato (38th), Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Tom Tunney (44th).

But two hours later, Hairston, Reilly and several of theirdissenting colleagues used a parliamentary maneuver on the City Council floor to delay a final vote on the mayor’s ordinance for at least one meeting.

O’Shea said he voted against the revised ordinance for the same reason the mayor’s plan had been temporarily snuffed out two days earlier.

It has the potential to drive small retailers out of business, particularly those located in border wards like O’Shea’s. That’s particularly true, they noted, given that Chicago already has the nation’s highest cigarette tax at $7.17 a pack.

“I need to protect my small-business owners. Once again, we’re getting hammered,” O’Shea said Wednesday.

“Plastic bag ban, minimum wage, gas tax, water tax. Everyone is driving to Evergreen Park to buy their products.”

Reilly argued that the city should not be in the business of “setting price floors” — not even for a product as damaging to health as cigarettes.

Emanuel’s ordinance would not immediately establish minimum prices and pack sizes for cigarettes sold in Chicago. But those hammers would come down if the mayor’s ordinance is overturned in court.

The new version also decriminalizes tobacco possession so more youth “don’t get caught up in the system.”

Under Emanuel, Chicago has imposed the nation’s highest cigarette tax; taxed and banned e-cigarettes wherever smoking is prohibited; moved them behind the counter of retail stores; snuffed out sales to minors and banned the sale of flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of schools.

The new ordinance would raise the smoking age to 21 and ban coupons and discounts that Big Tobacco uses to drive down the price of a pack of cigarettes from $13 to as low as $1 to lure teens to take up the habit.

The now stalled tax plan includes 15 cents on every mini-cigar; 90 cents on every full-sized cigar; $6.60 on every ounce of roll-your-own tobacco, and $1.80 on every ounce of smokeless chewing tobacco sold in cans.

Three years ago, Emanuel shaved a quarter off his 75 cents a pack cigarette tax hike to appease black aldermen concerned about street corner sales of loose cigarettes that breed more serious crime, including gun violence.

He also promised to crack down on “loosies” and unstamped cigarettes.

The Council temporarily stalled the mayor’s plan to ban e-cigarettes for the same reason.

That gave the mayor’s office the ammunition to claim that this week’s political setback made worse by Wednesday’s maneuver had more to do with the issue at hand than it did with the fact that the political furor over Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video has weakened the mayor and emboldened aldermen.

Earlier this week, Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) lent credence to that argument.

“Advisers of the mayor who look in terms of how this would benefit our children did not think about how detrimental it is to our community,” Austin said.

“They may not be plagued all over the city with loose cigarettes, but we are. And it’s more than just one or two places. In most of the wards of color, it’s all over. Every gas station I have. Every little convenience store that I have. They make more money than the store does. Every time we do something in regards to tobacco, their numbers go up and we get bombarded.”

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