CITY HALL — A West Side alderman is blaming high taxes on smokes for a black market that he said is rampant in some communities: the sale of loose cigarettes.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) held a news conference Wednesday calling on the Illinois General Assembly and the Cook County Board of Commissioners to reduce taxes on cigarettes.
Ervin said Wednesday the current cigarette tax, which is the second-highest in the country behind New York City, has the potential to cause "the next large wave of crime," similar to crime caused by the city's drug trade.
Ervin said he can see the negative impact in his own ward, which includes East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and Austin.
"You can go to the front of some stores and there are literally people out there fighting over who is going to get to sell a guy two cigarettes for a dollar," Ervin said. "This is not the type of activity I want to see in my ward."
Currently, Ervin said the effective cigarette tax rate in Illinois is $6.67: 68 cents charged by the City of Chicago, $1.01 by the federal government, $1.98 by the State of Illinois, and $3 by Cook County. Illinois raised its tax $1 in 2012 as part of its health care reform package. In 2013, Cook County raised its tobacco tax by the same amount.
"We need to roll it back to a point where people don't feel it's necessary to go outside the community to buy cigarettes," he said.
But the cigarette black market is not news to the office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinckle, said spokesman Owen Kilmer Thursday.
Since Preckwinkle took office in 2010, the department of revenue has tripled its number of tobacco inspectors and doubled its number of inspections, Kilmer said.
"We're going to continue that practice now that the tax is in place, and hopefully we'll bring in even more" inspectors, he said.
Preckwinkle said in a statement that the increase will raise $25.6 million in new revenue, which will go to Cook County’s hospitals and health care system.
Ervin said Wednesday the higher taxes are not raising the revenue lawmakers promised. He said smokers are still smoking, and they are increasingly going outside the county and even outside the state to buy their cigarettes. He said those who cannot leave the city are choosing to buy illegal loose cigarettes.
"These are the individuals who end up buying loose cigarettes one or two at a time," he said. "When you're arguing over dollars, violence follows."
Kilmer said the president's office took into account the smokers who would leave Cook County to buy cigarettes when calculating the estimated $25.6 million revenue.
"Initially people look outside the county but then realize their fuel costs…turn out to be more than if they just purchase them in Cook County," he said.
Smoker Dough Nishimoto, 56, said on the day the county's newest tax hike went into effect, March 1, that he thought it would increase the black market circulation and illegal sale of cigarettes.
He didn't think the tax would help smokers quit either.
"If it would have played a part in your reason to buy a pack, it would’ve happened five years ago” as prices steadily rose, he said. “They're preying on us.”
Police uncovered a nearly record-breaking stash of unlicensed cigarettes at a North Lawndale convenience store in February.
The Cook County Department of Revenue also took in $1.3 million in cigarette tax fines in 2012 due to increased efforts to crack down on the black market, Kilmer said.