Fact-check: Emanuel blows smoke about teen cigarette smoking in Chicago

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Speaking before Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation barring the sale of nicotine products to those under 21, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pointed to results from a similar rule already in effect in the city.

“There’s a lesson out of Chicago,” he said. “In the last eight years, we’ve seen a 50% reduction in teen smoking. Largest drop in the United States of America.”

Reducing teen smoking is something to boast about, but this isn’t the first time we’ve heard Emanuel declare an accomplishment to be not just good but stupendous by pumping it with air — or, in this case, smoke. In the past he’s made exaggerated claims about the city’s economic growth and about its school system, for instance, both of which we’ve rated Mostly False.

The best-in-the-nation teen smoking rate claim holds up no better.


Stretching the facts

First, it’s important to note that Emanuel was referring only to changes in cigarette smoking over time and not electronic cigarette use, which federal research shows is driving an increase in the overall use of nicotine products among youth even as cigarette smoking falls.

So Emanuel’s good news is tempered somewhat by national trends. That said, he is correct that in recent years Chicago has seen a decrease of roughly 50% in the share of teens who reported smoking cigarettes.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens as Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during a press conference at Cinespace Chicago Film Studio in February. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens as Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during a press conference at Cinespace Chicago Film Studio in February. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The results of a biennial youth behavior survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 12.5% of Chicago high school students reported in 2009 they had smoked a cigarette on at least one day within the past month. By the 2017 survey, the CDC found the comparable number had dropped to 6%.

That’s progress but nowhere near nation-leading progress. The CDC survey found bigger drops in teen smoking rates in at least nine other large urban school districts or counties.

Teen cigarette use in Chicago fell 52% between 2009 and 2017, the CDC found. But in Los Angeles, for example, the CDC recorded a 75% decline. For Boston, the drop was 70%.

The teen smoking rate in Chicago for 2017 was well below the national average of 8.8%, but there, too, the CDC recorded even better numbers for several other big cities. In Los Angeles, less than 3% of high-schoolers said they smoked. In Boston the number was just slightly over 3%, and in Philadelphia it was 3.5%. 

We asked the mayor’s office to explain his largest-drop-in-the-nation claim, but a spokesman for Emanuel responded with a statement that avoided a defense of his remarks.

The more than 50% decrease in teen cigarette smoking “makes Chicago a national leader in the pursuit to create a tobacco-free generation,” spokesman Patrick Kelly wrote in an email.

It’s also worth noting that the decline in teen smoking in Chicago tracks with a broader downward trend. The CDC’s survey results show that nationally, the share of teens who currently smoke cigarettes dropped by 55% between 2009 and 2017.

Our ruling

Emanuel said that Chicago’s reduction in teen smoking over the last eight years is the “largest drop in the United States of America.” 

Federal data on cigarette usage among high schoolers tracks with the figure he cited for Chicago’s decline. That same dataset, however, shows that Chicago is far from the nation’s leader in reducing teen smoking. At least nine other major school districts or counties came out ahead. 

We rate Emanuel’s statement Mostly False. 


MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. 

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

The Better Government Association runs PolitiFact Illinois, the local arm of the nationally renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking enterprise that rates the truthfulness of statements made by governmental leaders and politicians. BGA’s fact-checking service has teamed up weekly with the Sun-Times, in print and online. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.


 Press conference livestream, City of Chicago, April 7, 2019

“Emanuel plays fast and loose with fast growth boast,” PolitiFact Illinois, Oct. 20, 2017

“Emanuel exaggerates what studies say about CPS,” PolitiFact Illinois, Oct. 5, 2018

Report: Youth Tobacco Product Use, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Feb. 15, 2019

Data: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed April 10, 2019

Email interview: Patrick Kelly, Emanuel spokesman, April 11, 2019

Report: Healthy Chicago 2017 Data Brief, Chicago Department of Public Health, accessed April 10, 2019

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