CITY HALL — The mayor received an award from an African-American agency Tuesday for his fight against menthol and e-cigarettes.
In a City Hall ceremony, Mayor Rahm Emanuel received the Visionary Elected Leader Award from the California-based African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, specifically for his efforts to curb menthol use and e-cigarettes, but going back to his work in Congress and as a presidential aide to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Drawing at one point on Carl Sandburg's poem "Chicago" in accepting the award, Emanuel said, "I want a message to be heard by Big Tobacco: This is the City of Big Shoulders, and you're not welcome. Our kids are not for you."
According to Emanuel, 90 percent of adult smokers began as kids, thanks in part to tobacco marketing efforts.
"I'm not gonna mince words. They get them hooked," he said. "And if you break that link of Big Tobacco to our children, you can actually have a bigger impact later in life in public health and individual lives being saved."
Emanuel thanked Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, who helped lead a series of town-hall meetings on menthols and smoking this fall, as well as Aldermen JoAnn Thompson (16th) and Emma Mitts (37th), who sponsored an extended ban on the sale of flavored cigarettes near schools that cleared committee this week and headed for City Council approval.
Yet Emanuel repeated his call for an ordinance to declare e-cigarettes "tobacco products" that stalled in committee this week. Emanuel said e-cigarettes are a viable tool for adults trying to cut down on smoking, "but don't let kids get started on e-cigarettes." He blamed tobacco lobbyists for "what's happening in this building," and said he would continue to press for the restrictions on e-cigarettes, saying, "As it relates to kids, keep your hands off them.
"The City of Big Shoulders is gonna stand up to Big Tobacco," he added.
Phillip Gardiner, co-chairman of the leadership council, also cited Emanuel's work on the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which Emanuel helped write while in Congress and saw signed into law in 2009 as White House chief of staff to Obama. Gardiner said Emanuel and Chicago were spearheading national efforts to curb menthol cigarettes.
"Menthol masks the harsh taste of tobacco and should have been banned along with the other 13 candy flavorings back in 2009," Gardiner said. "Youth prefer candy flavorings and menthol in particular." He blamed "predatory marketing" in African-American communities for encouraging many teens to smoke.
According to Carol McGruder, co-chairwoman of the council, Emanuel is the second person presented with the award, following U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who earned it while speaker of the California assembly. McGruder added that smoking-related illnesses remain the leading cause of death in the African-American community.
Gardiner said more anti-tobacco leaders would have showed up for the ceremony if they hadn't been prevented by travel difficulties brought on by what Chicagoans recognize as Bear weather.
Emanuel chimed in, saying, "It worked last night against the Cowboys."