Emanuel urged to ban smoking in parks, tax other tobacco products

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel was urged Monday to ban smoking in Chicago parks and public housing and slap the nation’s highest cigarette tax on “other tobacco products” to exacerbate a record decline in smoking.

“Chicago’s beaches and playlots are smoke-free, but the parks themselves are not,” Joel Africk, president and CEO of the Respiratory Health Association, told a City Hall news conference called to kick off Smoking Cessation Awareness Week.

“New York City has smoke-free parks. Boston has smoke-free parks. The children of Chicago deserve smoke-free parks as well. If there are fewer outdoor locations where one can smoke, people who are trying to quit are going to be successful. There’s also less litter when you make your parks smoke-free.”

Chicago already levies a tax of $7.17 per pack on cigarettes, and Janet Williams, co-chair of the Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco, urged the mayor to slap that same tax on “other tobacco products,” including full-sized and mini-cigars, cigarillos, e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

“That’s clearly the way the industry has been moving. They’re pushing for dual use. They want these products. We’re not just talking about that gummy tobacco stuff that you stick into your lip. They have other products to deliver nicotine, such as e-cigarettes, which the tobacco manufacturers are now taking over,” Williams said.

Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair refused to comment on the demand for smoke-free parks and multi-unit public housing and a tax on other tobacco products.

“We are working on a legislative agenda. We’re still working on that. Today is really about driving people to quit smoking,” he said.

This week’s events — including fliers and posters promoting the Illinois Tobacco Quit line and a fundraiser to support tobacco cessation programs — will operate under the slogan, “Nobody Quits Like Chicago.”

Chicago has earned the label.

Smoking among Chicago high school students is way down — from 13.6 percent in 2011 to 10.7 percent last year. That’s five percent below the national average.

Chicago’s adult smoking rate has also dropped to a record-low 17.7 percent. That’s down from 22.6 percent in 2011.

The impressive drops occurred before the City Council approved Emanuel’s 2014 budget, which raised the city’s cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack, to $7.17 — the highest rate in the nation.

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.

Late Monday, City Hall defended Emanuel’s anti-smoking record as second to none.

As for the proposal to ban smoking at all Chicago parks, the statement said, “City Hall is aware of the request to expand the City’s existing 100% smokefree beaches policy to all parks and will explore it further.” 

Registered nurse Carol Southard, a tobacco cessation specialist at Northwestern Medical Group, noted that more than 70 percent of smokers want to quit. The problem is, most are trying to kick the habit on their own, without help.

“The most important thing — in addition to raising taxes — is to have cessation intervention a priority in every health care system. That’s what’s not happening right now. If I had my way, we’d be funding cessation intervention at every health care facility,” Southard said.

“If you have an addiction, it doesn’t matter how much that pack costs. I’ve had clients tell me, ‘If I have money for cigarettes or food, I’m gonna go for my cigarettes. It’s not the smoker that’s the enemy. It’s the product, Smokers are treated like second-class citizens. They’re shoved aside and they’re not being given treatment. There’s no other addiction that is ignored that way. They’re still being told to just stop.”

Ald. Joann Thompson (16th), who joined forces with the mayor on the flavored tobacco crackdown, is a prime example.

“It only took me 44 years to find out that I was killing myself with smoking,” said Thompson, who got a plaque for her efforts to prevent another generation of minority children from taking up the deadly habit. 

“It was the hardest thing to do to stop smoking. But, I had a doctor [who] warned me. I got sick. Smoking for so long really took a toll on my health. This Saturday will be two years since I had a cigarette. It’s the best thing that I could have done for myself.”

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