The traffic slowed for the light at Madison, and a man in a black jacket darted into the street and extended his hand to the car in front of us.
A driver reached out the window. Money was passed. A product was exchanged. The car drove on.
No, just cigarettes. Plain old tobacco cigarettes. Newports, in this instance.
Also known as “loosies” or “loose squares,” slang for loose cigarettes.
Because of the exorbitant price of cigarettes in Chicago, owing to our highest in the nation $7.17 tax on each cigarette pack, many minority neighborhoods are home to a bustling black market in sales of individual cigarettes.
The cigarettes are purchased by the carton outside the city at much lower prices, then resold illegally on the street. Two cigarettes for a dollar is the going rate, sometimes three for $2.
If an ordinance proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel becomes law, selling cigarettes in this manner could soon be punishable by up to six months in jail or fines up to $10,000. It’s part of the mayor’s latest effort to discourage teen smoking by raising the smoking age to 21.
Before it comes to devoting more police resources to cigarette enforcement, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) is hoping someone will pause a moment and think it through.
Ervin is among many African-American aldermen who say loose cigarette sales — which closely mimic the illegal drug trade — are a blight on their communities and need to be stopped.
But rather than respond by further criminalizing the activity, Ervin says we should consider government’s role in creating the market forces behind this unwanted side effect.
By raising tobacco taxes to discourage smoking, one result has been to fuel another illicit activity confined almost entirely to the places poor people live.
“Do we really want to lock up a guy selling loose cigarettes? It’s crazy,” Ervin told me as we drove through his West Side ward in his black Chevy Tahoe on Friday afternoon.
Earlier this month, Ervin implored the city’s health commissioner to walk with him down Madison “from Hamlin all the way to Kostner” to see for herself the consequences of the city’s cigarette policies.
I challenged him to take me instead. He agreed, although we mostly rode in his Tahoe.
“This is a margin play. This is capitalism at its finest,” Ervin explained. “If cigarettes were at $7 a pack, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Instead, cigarettes in Chicago are more like $12 a pack.
A 10-pack carton can be bought for $51 in Hammond, Ervin said. Figure 20 cigarettes to a pack, 200 to a carton. At two cigarettes for $1, that’s $100 in revenue, nearly a 100 percent markup.
You don’t need the authors of “Freakonomics” to explain the money-making possibilities.
In the city’s poor neighborhoods, where real jobs are hard to find and street hustles a common means of survival, selling loose cigarettes is a way to bring a few bucks home without running the risk of going to jail.
That is, it was, until now.
“It ain’t like they bootlegging whiskey or selling drugs,” said a companion of the man in black. “They don’t want to go to jail for doing something really illegal.”
We had stopped to talk on the corner outside a rundown convenience store. The man in black balked at first, but his companion chimed in.
“I’ve sold squares plenty of times,” he said, “The last time was starting about four weeks before Christmas just to buy my son a pair of boots.”
When he heard us talking about the proposed crackdown, the man in black wanted to be heard.
“You need to tell the mayor to create some mother-bleeping jobs on the West Side,” he said through watery eyes before another customer beckoned him back into the street.
So why bother with them at all?
To understand, Ervin says, imagine that every time you walked down the street or into a store you were accosted by somebody trying to sell you something you didn’t want and didn’t need and that’s illegal to boot.
“This is just another illicit item being dropped on folks,” he said.
Ervin’s solution, however, would require some of us to set aside our white middle class sensibilities.
“You could kill all this. Just change the tax policy,” he said.
Look, I don’t know the answer here. I understand the public health benefits of stopping smoking.
But like all our prohibition efforts, we never think it all the way through.