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Aldermen lift ban on menthol cigarette sales near grade schools

Mayor Rahm Emanuel accepts an award in 2013 from the he African American Tobacco Leadership Council for his efforts to curb use of flavored cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other products the group says are designed to lure teens into a lifetime of smoking. File Photo. | Fran Spielman~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has crusaded for a nationwide ban on menthol cigarettes — and pushed through a protective bubble within 500 feet of Chicago schools — on grounds that the flavored products are a “gateway to a lifetime of addiction.”

Why then, did the City Council’s Finance Committee take an apparent step backward in the mayor’s anti-smoking crusade by lifting Chicago’s three-year-old ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes within 500 feet of elementary schools?

The reason is the convincing case made by owners of roughly 400 convenience stores impacted by the ban.

In an argument that’s been raging behind the scenes for years and went public Monday, the store owners argued that the 500-foot radius was killing their business and forcing devastating layoffs.

They further argued that the protective bubble — five times the previous radius — became a moot point after the smoking age in Chicago was raised from 18 to 21 and after the City Council imposed stiffer penalties on retailers that sell cigarettes to minors.

“We’ve lost over 25 percent of our sales. … That’s over $1,100-a-day in sales. We’ve lost over 150 customers who are going elsewhere for products that are legal to sell in the U.S. of A. Yet, we’re being restricted from selling them as we have grammar school elementary schools next to us,” the owner of three convenience stores told aldermen.

“Since this ban has taken place, I’ve had to lay off two full- time employees and a couple of part-timers — a single mom, a dad or two and it’s getting harder and harder to be able compete, especially for the stores that are by the boundaries, which one of my stores is.”

To sell the changes and avoid looking like he was abandoning his life-long anti-smoking crusade, Emanuel agreed to relax the ban, only around grade schools while keeping it in place around high schools.

The reason for lifting the ban on flavored tobacco sales around elementary schools only is a numbers game.

Chicago Public Schools alone have 421 district-run elementary schools, but only 95 district-run high schools.

The mayor also added a provision that prevents anyone under the age of 21 from selling or dispensing tobacco, with increased fines to go along with those changes. That would mirror the regulations that govern liquor sales.

The substitute ordinance, introduced by Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, also allows large cigars to be sold individually. And after Dec. 31, no new tobacco licenses will be issued within 500 feet of a high school.

The ceiling does not apply to license renewals, nor does it apply to the sale of businesses that remain at the same location.

The changes were not enough to satisfy Joel Africk, president and CEO of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

Africk argued that the parade of anti-smoking ordinances approved by the City Council in recent years — including the protective bubble around schools — have reduced the rate of youth smoking in Chicago by more than 25 percent. Heart attack hospitalizations are down by 21 percent.

“We are talking about the leading cause of preventable death in our country. These are your children, our children. It is our health legacy,” Africk said.

“If we need to reduce it to economics, the economic savings in health care costs just from the drop in youth smoking is going to be over $300 million.”

Africk noted that the ordinance approved three years ago “was itself a compromise.” New York City has a citywide ban on the sale of flavored tobacco “except in adults-only tobacco establishments,” he said.

“We believe it comes down to a weighing of the health of our city and our youth vs. the business interests of those who wish to continue to sell tobacco products,” Africk said.

Also on Monday, the chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus argued that Chicago should cut its highest-in-the-nation, $7.17-a-pack cigarette tax to stop the black-market sale of loose cigarettes and the crime that comes with it.

“The illegal cigarette industry has become a booming industry. That’s our fault. We’ve created it by [raising] taxes so high that people who legitimately want to buy cigarettes can no longer buy them. We created that underground economy and we’ve got to stop it some kind of way,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th).

Sawyer refused to say how big the tax cut should be. He would only say $7.17-a-pack is “prohibitively high,” pricing cigarettes “way out of the market.”

“It’s gonna be taxed high. I get that. People shouldn’t be smoking and if they do, they’re paying the price for it. But what we did, unconsciously, was create that sub-culture, that underground economy that we’re trying to get rid of. But we can’t get rid of it because the price of cigarettes is too high. It’s kind of a conundrum,” he said.

In 2013, African-American aldermen used the rampant sale of “loosies” as their rallying cry against the mayor’scigarette tax hike. Their complaints forced Emanuel to shave a quarter off the 75-cents-a-pack tax hike.

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.

The total city tax is now $1.18. That’s compared to over $3 in county taxes.

In an emailed statement, the mayor’s office made it clear that Emanuel was not about to cut the cigarette tax and turn back the clock on the parade of reforms he has implemented to curb teen smoking and tobacco use.

“Since taking office, Mayor Emanuel has worked closely with the City Council to pass a series of reforms aimed at curbing youth tobacco use in Chicago. Today, Chicago has achieved record low rates of youth smoking, with rates expected to plummet further with the implementation of Tobacco 21. The substitute ordinance introduced today represents a fair compromise with Aldermen on issues important to their communities, while preventing any setback on the progress we’ve made in protecting youth from tobacco use,” the statement said.

Top mayoral aides noted that Chicago’s $7.17-a-pack tax is tailor-made to discourage young people, who tend to be more “price sensitive,” from taking up a lifetime addiction to smoking.

The Chicago City Council also may lift or alter a ban on selling menthol cigarettes within 500 feet of a school. | Getty Images

The Chicago City Council also may lift or alter a ban on selling menthol cigarettes within 500 feet of a school. | Getty Images