Aldermen Halt Emanuel's Plan to Raise Smoking Age, Tobacco Taxes

Group concerned about small tobacco retailers, black market sales

A group of Chicago aldermen on Monday shot down Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to increase the city’s smoking age from 18 to 21 and add a $6 million tax on all types of tobacco.

The City Council’s Finance Committee voted against Emanuel’s plan, arguing that it would encourage black market sales of loose cigarettes and force small retailers out of business, namely those located near the city limits.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato warned of these “unintended consequences” as a result of the proposed tax hike that would be “catastrophic for certain areas of our city.”

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Ald. Roderick Sawyer said. “It hurts us more than the few people it helps.”

Tanya Triche, spokeswoman for the Illinois Retail Merchant Association, referred to tobacco sales as “a critical profit center for convenience stores and gas stations” and warned that “the illegal sale of cigarettes is on the rise.”

The move exemplifies Emanuel’s diminished support among city legislators in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting.

McDonald was shot and killed by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in October of 2014. Calls for Emanuel’s resignation erupted last November when dash-cam footage of the incident was made public.

"Mayor Emanuel has stood up to the tobacco industry countless times throughout his career to reduce youth smoking, and he's not about to back down now," City Hall Spokesman Adam Collins told Ward Room. 

Public Health Commissioner Julie Morita championed the mayor’s plan, calling smoking “the leading cause of preventable disease."

“I know that smoking kills,” Morita said. “This [tax] package would end up saving lives.”

Emanuel’s proposal, which was co-sponsored by Aldermen Joe Moreno, Will Burns and Ameya Pawar, would raise the city’s smoking age, ban the use of coupons and discounts for cigarettes and tax tobacco beyond cigarettes.

Pawar pledged his “unwavering support” for the measure and accused opponents of “carrying the water for big tobacco companies.”

"The tobacco industry can lobby as much as they like," Collins said. "We'll continue speaking to and working with aldermen on this ordinance that will prevent young people from picking up smoking, while investing in their education."

Emanuel holds that the new taxes would serve as a way to fund an orientation program for incoming Chicago Public School freshmen.

Chicago currently has the nation’s highest cigarette tax at $7.17 per pack. 

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