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Chicago ban on flavored tobacco products stalls in City Council committee

The proposal by Ald. Matt O’Shea, one of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s closest allies, ran into an avalanche of opposition from gas stations and convenience and tobacco store owners and the trade groups represent them.

Camel’s flavored cigarette flavors include (from right) Mandarin Mint, Izmar Stinger, Twist, and Creamy Mellow Mint. Anti-smoking groups say tobacco companies are targeting the youth market by offering flavored cigarettes.
Flavored cigarette varieties have included (from right) Mandarin Mint, Izmar Stinger, Twist, and Creamy Mellow Mint. Anti-smoking groups say tobacco companies are targeting the youth market by offering flavored cigarettes.
AP file

A proposal by one of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s closest City Council allies to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in Chicago stalled in a City Council committee after running into an avalanche of opposition.

Owners of gas stations, convenience stores and tobacco stores — and trade groups representing them — showed up in force at the virtual meeting to accuse the City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations of “kicking them when they’re down.”

They argued small businesses are fighting for survival after a double-whammy: first, the coronavirus pandemic; then, damage during civil unrest, which came when many were “woefully under-insured.”

The last thing they need, they said, is this ordinance, sponsored by Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th). They called it “legislative over-reach” that would cost them even more business, they said, noting that tobacco products account for 40% of revenue for a typical Chicago gas station — and that 52% of that tobacco revenue comes from flavored tobacco products.

“This is the equivalent to kicking this industry while they’re down. You not only lose out on flavored tobacco sales to adults. You lose a significant driver of other business. When people buy tobacco, they buy other things. So the business loses out on all of those sales. The city loses out on all of the revenue,” said Tanya Triche Dawood, vice president and general counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

Dawood acknowledged there is “absolutely … an issue with teen vaping,” but it can be solved by “identifying products that are attractive to teens” and banning those — not by “taking products away from adults” like “tobacco- and menthol-flavored vapes,” she said.

“I’m not aware of any data that shows that pipe tobacco is gaining in popularity with teens. Neither is chew. Or even menthol cigarettes. But all of these products are included in this proposal,” Dawood said.

Flavored vaping products containing nicotine target teens, some critics say.
Flavored vapes appealing to teens are the real issue, a trade group representative told aldermen on Monday, criticizing a proposal to ban all flavored tobacco products, even those preferred by older smokers.
AFP/Getty Images

“I encourage members of this committee to focus on … keeping kids away from vaping products made in flavors that are likely to attract them. You can do that while preserving the tobacco products and vaping products that are attractive to adults and saving the small businesses that sell tobacco products to adults.”

Riley King said he owns several stores, some just blocks away from border suburbs. One location is a 15-minute drive from Indiana.

“This is just one more nail in our coffin as far as being able to survive, business-wise. … This is just yet another product you’re taking away from our customers. … With the COVID issue and with minimum wage just going up last week, it’s becoming harder and harder to survive,” King said.

“Youth vaping is completely out of control and, I believe, does need to be addressed. But I don’t believe menthol cigarettes and flavored chewing tobacco have to be lumped in with this. I don’t believe our business should be restricted [when it comes to] selling these items to adults. They make their own decisions.”

Richard Marianos, retired assistant director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, warned aldermen that a ban on flavored tobacco products would increase crime in Chicago at a time when murders and shootings are surging, killing and maiming children.

“Very simply, when Missouri has a tax of 17 cents, it becomes extremely lucrative and favorable for street-cruising gang members and criminals to travel Downstate to pick up large loads of tobacco and make 10 times the amount of street sales or sell loosies on the street at $2 apiece along with the sale of cocaine and heroin in some of these spots,” Marianos said.

Thomas Bryant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, predicted a “devastating loss of sales that would likely result in employee layoffs and store closures.” That would not only exacerbate food deserts, but also cost the city $9.3 million in cigarette and sales taxes the first year and $78 million over the next decade, he said.

After the hearing, O’Shea acknowledged he has “a lot of work to do” to build support. He said he was open to changes in response to opposition aired during Monday’s hearing, which included favorable testimony from public health experts.

But the alderman argued “this nexis between COVID and tobacco” is a huge problem that must be addressed.

“Flavored tobacco products are targeting children. These products will give our children a lifetime of heart and lung, and health issues and most definitely will continue to impact minority communities at a much higher rate,” he said.

“This is a public health crisis. We have to do something.”