CITY HALL — The city will beef up its crackdown on illegal cigarettes next year as it increases its share of the local tax by 75 cents a pack.
The Mayor's Office made the announcement Thursday as Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner of business affairs and consumer protection, testified in 2014 budget hearings.
"There is a perception that that will be a problem with the increase in the tax," Krimbel said. "We're going to step up enforcement and work closely with the Police Department because we want to make sure there isn't an increase. We want to get ahead of this problem."
Krimbel said the city confiscated 31,000 packs of illegal cigarettes last year and had issued $293,000 in fines for sale of cigarettes lacking the local tax stamp this year. The fines represented a 44 percent increase over 2012.
The Department of Business Affairs will increase its enforcement unit by 50 percent, according to the Mayor's Office. That unit is charged with conducting stings to catch merchants selling illegal cigarettes. Krimbel said that would mean an increase from four to six inspectors assigned to those investigations to six to eight "and as many as nine."
The fine for selling illegal cigarettes is $1,000, the same as for selling cigarettes to minors. Both were raised last year.
Krimbel said the fine was sufficient enforcement, although retailers faced the loss of their business license for subsequent offenses.
"We presume once we whack them, cite them, they won't go back," Krimbel said during the budget hearing.
"Since taking office, my administration has expanded its efforts to stamp out illegal tobacco sales because they harm our communities and our small businesses," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. "These new initiatives will ensure that we continue to crack down on this illegal activity across the city."
Business affairs inspectors do not typically address the sale of single cigarettes, called "loosies," which are usually sold on the street. But the Chicago Police Department is also stepping up enforcement, making 781 arrests and issuing 490 tickets so far this year, both up from the totals for 2012.
"Last year, CPD increased arrests and nearly doubled the number of tickets given for selling loose cigarettes,” said Chief Nicholas Roti, head of the bureau of organized crime. "Next year, we plan to increase our efforts even further by automating alerts of illegal activity from [city] inspectors to our officers. We understand the impact of this crime on health and neighborhood economies, and we take it seriously."
The city proposes more than doubling its share of the local tax by 75 cents to $1.43 a pack in its 2014 budget. Krimbel said similar earlier increases in state and county taxes had not produced an increase in the so-called black market.
"People who are going to sell untaxed cigarettes are going to sell untaxed cigarettes," she said. "They don't really care what the tax is, because they're not paying it." Yet, she added her department wanted to assure aldermen there would be no increase this time.
Krimbel said Chicago also continued to work with Cook County on local enforcement of the cigarette and tobacco taxes.
Confiscated cigarettes, Krimbel said, are typically shredded. She said she had asked Dr. Bechara Choucair, head of the Department of Public Health, about the possible resale of those cigarettes.
"Dr. Choucair took my face off," Krimbel said, although she added that "there's a lot of money there."