Big Tobacco takes hit; City Council bolsters anti-smoking efforts
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Big Tobacco took it on the chin Wednesday when Chicago raised its smoking age to 21, outlawed discounts, slapped a $6 million tax on cigars, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco and banned chaw altogether at sports stadiums.
On the day after the election, a bleary-eyed City Council turned its attention to pocket-book issues, some benefitting consumers, others hitting them smack in the wallet:
• With a few minor tweaks, Mayor Rahm Emanuel strengthened a sweeping anti-smoking agenda that has driven the teen smoking rate down to 10.7 percent. The mayor has now set his sights on what he called the “attainable goal” of creating a “tobacco-free generation.”
The mayor salvaged a plan that raises Chicago’s smoking age from 18 to 21, taxes tobacco products other than cigarettes and prohibits coupons and discounts used to lure another generation of smokers to take up the deadly habit.
Last month, a handful of aldermen used a parliamentary maneuver to delay an ordinance that the mayor had amended to appease aldermen concerned about the black-market sale of loose cigarettes and the crime that comes with it.
Emanuel responded with a defiant claim that Big Tobacco can stall the ordinance, but can’t stop it because, “The votes are there.”
On Wednesday, the mayor delivered on that bold claim by a vote of 35 to 10.
“Chicago has one of the lowest teen smoking rates — not only in history, but in the country. This is an important step,” the mayor said.
Critics contend that taxing tobacco products yet again when Chicago already has the nation’s highest cigarette tax at $7.17-a-pack will drive up the black-market sale of loose cigarettes that breed more serious crime and drive small retailers out of business, particularly those located near the city limits.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association has also taken aim at Emanuel’s heavy-handed threat to establish minimum prices and pack sizes for cigarettes sold in Chicago if the ordinance is overturned in court.
• With a verbal nudge from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the City Council agreed to make Chicago the nation’s fourth big league city to ban smokeless tobacco at baseball stadiums and other “professional and amateur” sporting events.
San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles have passed similar bans that take effect this season while New York and Toronto have legislation pending.
The Chicago ban is a big victory for the so-called “Knock Tobacco Out of the Park” campaign sweeping the nation.
It’s aimed at reversing persistent use of smokeless tobacco among teenagers — and a troubling rise among high school athletes — at a time when there has been a dramatic decline in the teen smoking rate.
One veteran White Sox player, who dips, said Wednesday he can live with the measure.
“It is what it is,” said Sox pitcher John Danks. “The way I look at it, I was raised to be a law-abiding citizen and if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.
“You have to look at it, we’re grown men. Some guys will look at it and say I’m a grown man, I can do what I want within the limits of the law. Now, you have to be selective where to do it.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon, though, bristled at the change.
“I’m just saying when it comes down to telling me what I can and cannot do, if it’s illegal and then I can’t do it, I get it,” Maddon said. “But don’t try to make choices for me. Like a couple years ago they made it [so that] you couldn’t serve a certain size of soda pop in New York City, as an example. Come on. I don’t quite understand that. When everybody else thinks they know what’s good for me, I don’t appreciate that.”
• Tampons and sanitary napkins characterized as “medical necessities” were exempted from Chicago’s 1.25 percent sales tax to avoid “unfairly penalizing women.”
Five states — Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts — already have made the products that women use each month before menopause exempt from sales taxes.
Chicago will now join the parade. Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president for development at the NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, has acknowledged that the tax break is a “symbolic change” that’s unlikely to make a dent in the wallets of poor women.
But she’s hoping it will be the first step in a “larger movement” to promote what she called “menstrual equity” for women who have difficulty affording and accessing menstrual products that cost up to $10 a month per person.
New York City is considering mandating free distribution of tampons and pads in homeless shelters, public schools and correction facilities. She’s hoping Chicago will do the same.
• Taxi passengers who pay with plastic will pay a 50-cent-a-ride surcharge — on top of the 15 percent fare hike included in Emanuel’s 2016 budget. The surcharge is aimed at reimbursing cabdrivers fighting for survival in the Uber era for processing fees imposed on them by credit card companies.
Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th), chief sponsor of the ordinance, has said he does not believe the surcharge will exacerbate the exodus of taxi passengers flocking to Uber and Lyft.
Contributing: Daryl Van Schouwen, Gordon Wittenmyer