Last year, Mayor Rahm 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. He also promised to crack down on “loosies” and unstamped cigarettes.
Now, a 60-day “Check the Stamps” campaign, which offers cash rewards to tipsters, has resulted in an avalanche of tickets: 620 citations to 165 businesses.
They face fines ranging from $518,875 to $1.7 million, according to City Hall, after being accused of stashing unstamped cigarettes in a toilet tank, a computer printer, an air-conditioning exhaust pipe and behind a fake wall or trap door.
Five hundred complaints poured in — triggering investigations of 225 businesses — lured by the promise of $100 rewards for tips that result in a conviction for illegal cigarette sales. Forty-five people are now eligible for rewards upon conviction, officials said.
“This campaign is the latest step in our city’s efforts to protect youth from smoking. This campaign is working,” Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair said in a news release.
At least some of the violations uncovered by City Hall include selling tobacco to minors and failing to post warning signs to minors. Other violations include: selling “singles” or “loosies,” as they’re known on the street; unlawful concealment; inspection interference and inadequate record-keeping.
The decision to get tough on the sale of single cigarettes will come as music to the ears of African-American aldermen, who used the rampant sale of “loosies” as their rallying cry against the mayor’s cigarette tax hike a year ago.
Their complaints forced Emanuel to shave a quarter off the 75-cents-a-pack tax hike. But that was not enough to appease West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).
Ervin noted that the revised, 50-cent increase still left Chicago with a combined state and local tax on cigarettes sold in the city of $7.17-a-pack that’s the highest in the nation and 31 cents higher than New York City’s $6.86-a-pack.
“We still create the black market when we raise that bar at any level,” Ervin complained during debate on Emanuel’s 2014 budget.
Even so, Emanuel’s wide-ranging campaign to snuff out smoking appears to be working.
Smoking among Chicago high school students is way down — from 13.6 percent in 2011 to 10.7 percent last year. That’s 5 percent below the national average.
Chicago’s adult smoking rate has also dropped to a record low of 17.7 percent. That’s down from 22.6 percent in 2011.
The impressive drops occurred even before the cigarette tax hike.
The mayor’s sweeping anti-smoking agenda has also included banning e-cigarettes wherever smoking is prohibited, moving them behind the counter of retail stores, snuffing out sales to minors and banning the sale of flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of schools.
The tax stamp affixed to a pack of cigarettes is proof that city and county taxes have been paid. The sale of unstamped cigarettes carries a minimum fine of $1,000 for every pack illegally sold.