CITY HALL — Anti-smoking groups used the annual Great American Smokeout Thursday to lobby for a proposed doubling of the city's cigarette tax.
Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, called a 75-cents-a-pack increase in the city's cigarette tax "a life-saving measure," especially for younger potential smokers.
"Kids are the most price-sensitive consumers ever when it comes to cigarettes," Choucair said, estimating that from previous data 6,400 fewer Chicago youths would take up smoking a year if the added tax were imposed.
"Increased taxes will reduce smoking rates and ultimately save more lives," said Nancy Yaw, executive vice president of the American Cancer Society's Lakeshore Division, as she threw the agency's support behind the increase.
"Raising the tax on tobacco is a proven public-health strategy that saves thousands of lives," said Janet Williams, chairwoman of the Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco.
Aldermen have taken issue with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposal to more than double the cigarette tax from 68 cents a pack to $1.43. They've complained about the black market in loose and illegal cigarettes, and have speculated on businesses suffering, especially on the city borders.
Williams called those arguments "a smokescreen being fueled by the tobacco industry and its front groups." She urged adoption of a federal track-and-trace program to discourage the distribution of illegal cigarettes, and Choucair cited the city's plans to increase enforcement against them.
Several speakers at a City Hall news conference Thursday dismissed the suggestion to cut the increase by a quarter to 50 cents a pack.
"It would subtract from the lives being saved," said Mark Peysakhovich, of the American Heart Association, who said each incremental increase in the tax served as "the straw that broke the camel's back" for a certain number of smokers. "It's simple math," he said. "Each quarter dropped equals fewer lives saved.
"The real crime isn't selling loosies on the corner," Peysakhovich added. "The real crime is a cheap, deadly product available in minority communities is killing lots more people than guns and bullets do."
"It's not about the city's revenue or driving the black market," said Dr. Javette Orgain of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "It's about breaking the cycle of tobacco addiction, saving lives and health-care costs."
The groups focused their support for the tax increase on the 38th annual Great American Smokeout.
"As we fully expect that there will soon be a significant increase in the price of cigarettes in Chicago, there will never be a better time to quit than now," Choucair said.