Small business owners and their City Council allies on Tuesday marshaled opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan 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.
Two weeks ago, 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. Emanuel responded with a defiant claim that Big Tobacco can stall the ordinance, but can’t stop it.
“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.
On Tuesday, small business owners assembled by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association held a City Hall news conference to challenge the mayor’s bold claim.
They argued that taxing tobacco products yet again when Chicago already has the nation’s highest cigarette tax would drive up the black-market sale of loose cigarettes that breeds more serious crime and drive small retailers out of business, particularly those located near the city limits.
Tanya Triche, vice-president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, took aim at Emanuel’s heavy-handed threat to establish minimum prices and pack sizes for cigarettes sold in Chicago if the ordinance is overturned in court.
“We really see it as a veiled threat: ‘If you don’t sue us, then we won’t hurt you with minimum floor pricing. But, if you do, then we’re going to bring it back.’ We don’t respond well to that,” Triche said.
To appease recalcitrant aldermen, the mayor agreed to double the fine for the sale of loose cigarettes and use some of the money generated by the new tobacco taxes to fund 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.
On Tuesday, West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) accused Emanuel of making a bad situation even worse.
“To now criminalize the sale of loose cigarettes and impose a fine and a penalty of up to $10,000 and six months in jail is ludicrous. This is a problem that we created. And now, we want to solve it by putting generally young, poor, African-American and Latino men in jail. That is not the answer,” Ervin said.
For five years, Emanuel has pursued a sweeping anti-smoking agenda that has driven the teen smoking rate down to 10.7 percent.
But Ervin said, “They may be decreasing overall. But, from what Cook County Hospital is telling us, those rates are not decreasing among young black and young Latino kids. Who is this really helping and who is this really hurting? To take a policy that is going to create a great situation for one group of people but create a totally negative impact on another group of people is not good public policy.”
To underscore the point, Ervin talked about what he saw Monday at the corner of Laramie and Madison as he walked into a local church.
“A guy reaches out of his car and hands another guy a carton of Newport cigarettes and he immediately opened it. Before he crossed the street, he had already sold three packs of cigarettes,” Ervin said.
“The taxes are just too high. We’ve created a black market, an underground economy.”
Emanuel countered that his anti-smoking crusade has “dramatically impacted teen smoking to some of the lowest rates” in Chicago history.
“Ninety percent of our kids are tobacco-free and, if they don’t start smoking when they’re kids, they won’t start smoking later in life and [fall victim to] all of the bad health consequences of that decision,” the mayor said.
“The goal of having a tobacco-free generation is no longer aspirational. It’s attainable—and that’s my ultimate goal.”
Emanuel said the goal of his latest anti-smoking package is to raise the smoking age and stay one step ahead of Big Tobacco.
“Tobacco companies consistently turn to e-cigarettes, flavored products, now cigarellos, as a way to hook kids in because cigarettes have become harder. This is getting ahead of tobacco companies that constantly are figuring out ways to hook kids onto a lifetime of smoking,” he said.
Under Emanuel, Chicago has: raised the cigarette tax to a nationwide high of $7.17 per pack; 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 stalled ordinance raises the smoking age to 21 and bans 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 new 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.