As cigarette taxes continue to climb, Cook County board President Toni Preckwinkle said the county is ramping up efforts to halt illegal cigarette sales.
Preckwinkle said Thursday that since she took office two years ago, the county has nearly doubled the amount of cigarette fines collected from $979,000 to $1.8 million.
But despite efforts, the illegal sales are still making their way into the county. Preckwinkle said that in a February sting, the Department of Revenue seized 11,480 loose cigarettes, the equivalent of 574 packs, at a tobacco shop.
“We’ve seen dealers switch their focus from traditional drugs to smuggling cigarettes… because it’s more profitable and carries less drug time,” she said.
Preckwinkle noted the problem is not limited to one part of the county or business, and added they plan to inspect small gas stations, night clubs, bars and big box stores.
“We’ll continue to crack down on businesses that seek an unfair advantage by circumventing taxes and we’ll protect businesses that abide by the law,” she said.
The county expects to bring in $133 million in tobacco tax revenue in 2014, according to Preckwinkle, who said the tax continues to be a “bright spot” in their budget.
The year-old tax took effect in June 2012 and raised the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 98 cents to $1.98. At the time, officials said the money would bring in desperately needed revenue, while also discouraging people from smoking.
But the tax is expected to bring in $212 million in extra money for the current fiscal year. That's about 39 percent short of the $350 million that was projected.
Preckwinkle said fewer people are buying cigarettes, which explains the decline.
Total cigarette tax revenue for the year is expected to reach almost $788 million, up 37 percent from the previous year.
While critics say the tax hikes are responsible for the increase in illegal cigarette sales, Preckwinkle says they are necessary.
“The higher the taxes the more you discourage young people to smoke and for me that’s critical,” she said. “This is a terrible, self-destructive habit.”
Preckwinkle also addressed concerns that the black market cigarette sales could turn violent.
"I sincerely doubt it," she said.