CITY HALL — A mayoral proposal to raise the smoking age, increase tobacco taxes and put money toward school orientation met resistance in the City Council Monday over its impact on small businesses and the already "epidemic" sales of "loosies" on the street.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the Finance Committee considering the proposal, eventually shelved the plan for now, after considerable debate.
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) lashed out at the "unintended consequences" of the proposed tax hike, saying it would be "catastrophic for certain areas of our city," especially small-business owners on the city fringes who could lose customers to the suburbs.
"These guys are gonna get whacked," Sposato said.
Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) said smokers in her Southeast Side ward can walk a few blocks and buy cigarettes in Indiana for $6 that are being sold in Chicago for $12.
"I do think we need to look at this a little more closely," she said.
West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) likewise complained of potential unintended consequences, perhaps in encouraging the illegal sale of single cigarettes, or "loosies," on the street.
Citing the health adage to "first do no harm," Ervin said, "What I see is additional harm being done."
According to Ervin, one woman selling loosies on the West Side went from doing so in the cold to selling out of "the luxury of a brand-new Jeep."
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said the ordinance would "devastate communities of color.
"I'm sorry, it doesn't make any sense to me. It hurts us more than the few people it helps."
Public Health Commissioner Julie Morita called smoking "the leading cause of preventable disease.
"I know that smoking kills," Morita said. "This [tax] package would end up saving lives."
She acknowledged the "black market" sales of loosies is "an ongoing concern," but she maintained the proposed changes would have an overall benefit.
According to Morita, the proposal submitted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and co-sponsored by Aldermen Joe Moreno (1st), Will Burns (4th) and Ameya Pawar (47th), would raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21; would tax tobacco beyond cigarettes, including smokeless tobacco; and would ban coupons and discounts on cigarettes.
Declaring his "unwavering support," Pawar called opposition "truly insane" and charged that those against the measure were "carrying the water for big tobacco companies."
Yet Burke said the opinion of many aldermen was that "the sale of loosies is at epidemic proportions." Pointing to the woman selling loosies out of her Jeep, he added, "Sounds like business is booming for that entrepreneur."
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said, "Everybody on this council agrees smoking is bad." Yet she insisted, "The impact [of raising the tobacco-buying age] is going to be the exact opposite of what you intend," in that young adults 18-21 would be more likely to take smoking up if it's made illegal to them.
Tanya Triche, spokeswoman for the Illinois Retail Merchant Association, called tobacco sales "a critical profit center for convenience stores and gas stations in particular," and said they'd feel the increased tax. The black market would benefit, she added, pointing out "the illegal sale of cigarettes is on the rise."
Ald. Matthew O'Shea (19th) testified that a Mount Greenwood gas station in his ward got caught selling illegal cigarettes, accepted a 21-day license suspension and $14,000 fine and went right back to selling them.
Emanuel touted the new taxes as a way to fund an orientation program for incoming freshman in Chicago Public Schools, but Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said "common sense" would indicate the estimated $6 million raised would be better devoted to smoking-cessation programs. Other aldermen argued the money would be dwarfed by the funding required to enforce the law and defend it against suits filed by merchants and the tobacco industry.
Emanuel insisted the proposal isn't dead.
"Mayor Emanuel has stood up to the tobacco industry countless times throughout his career to reduce youth smoking, and he’s not about to back down now," said spokesman Adam Collins. "The tobacco industry can lobby as much as they like. We’ll continue speaking to and working with aldermen on this ordinance that will prevent young people from picking up smoking, while investing in their education."
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