DOWNTOWN — Cook County is cracking down on the sale of loose cigarettes and the smuggling of untaxed cigarettes.
"Vigorous enforcement encourages compliance," said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in a news conference Thursday at the County Building.
According to Preckwinkle, the county has tripled business inspections seeking illicit cigarettes under her administration from 3,000 to 9,000 a year and will add eight inspectors this year to make 14 countywide.
They're targeting not just corner stores and gas stations, Preckwinkle said, but clubs and big-box stores, as well. That has produced 3,400 annual citations, almost doubling fines from $979,000 to $1.8 million.
The county projected $133 million in 2014 tax revenue from its tobacco tax. Tobacco tax revenue continues to decline, Preckwinkle acknowledged, as the percentage of those who smoke declines, but she said increased cigarette taxes and greater enforcement had minimized that drop.
"Illegal cigarettes and smuggling represent a lucrative black-market enterprise," she added. A pack of illegal cigarettes in Cook County costs about $5 less than the $12 or more charged by most legal dealers. Many of the smokes, she said, now come from Missouri without adding the local tax stamp.
Preckwinkle dismissed the idea that high taxes cause the black market.
"The higher the taxes, the more you discourage young people from starting to smoke," she said. "I would be very happy if we didn't collect any money because everybody stopped smoking."
Preckwinkle acknowledged that many kids on street corners are now selling loose cigarettes instead of drugs, saying it's "more profitable and carries less time" for convictions. She said the county had issued 750 citations annually.
Yet she added it did not present the same level of social problems.
"People shot each other over alcohol in the '20s, and are shooting each other over drugs now. They're not shooting each other over loose cigarettes," Preckwinkle said.
Asked if that could change if the black market persists, she said, "I seriously doubt it."
Preckwinkle said the county was also cracking down on violators of the liquor tax and gas tax, as well.