CITY HALL — Aldermen and small-business owners railed Tuesday against a temporarily stalled proposal to increase the smoking age and tobacco taxes.
"I am losing retailers by the thousands," said Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), adding that some of her constituents on the Southeast Side can simply cross the street into Indiana to buy cigarettes at a much lower price due to taxes.
Garza and Aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th) and Nicholas Sposato (38th) exercised a parliamentary move in the City Council earlier this month to delay approval of a tax package that would raise the city's smoking age from 18 to 21, while adding taxes on cigars and smokeless tobacco.
At the time, Mayor Rahm Emanuel countered, "You can delay what we're gonna do, but you can't defeat it, because the votes are there."
On Tuesday at City Hall, those opponents were joined by Aldermen Jason Ervin (28th) and David Moore (17th) and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association to argue against passage.
Ervin said the measure only resulted in an "underground economy," in sales of "loosies" on street corners to smokers and underage smokers.
"This continues to be a problem of our own creation based on our tax policy," Ervin said.
He added that it was "ludicrous" to increase penalties against the sale of loosies, a provision added to appeal to other aldermen, at a time when there is already social pressure to lower the incarceration rate for African-American youths.
Retired Judge William Haddad argued that the tax unfairly affected minority small-business owners and would cost additional money to enforce by the Police Department and Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
"Is that a good use of manpower?" Haddad said. "I would say no."
"Tobacco products have been unfairly targeted," said Jim Bayci, a Loop 7-Eleven franchise owner. "When I lose tobacco customers to bordering communities, I also lose the associated sale of beverages, snacks and other items." He called it "a huge hit to 7-Eleven franchise owners across the city."
Tanya Triche, general counsel for the merchants association, said customers are "running away" to Indiana and to corner "loosies" sales, and small-business owners are feeling the pinch.
Triche decried a "short-term policy that's produced long-term pain."
The Emanuel administration countered that it is a public-health issue, a stance supported by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Respiratory Health Association, Illinois Academy of Family Physicians and American Lung Association of Illinois.
"We as a city owe it to our youth to do everything we can to protect them from the deadly effects of a lifetime of tobacco addition," said mayoral spokeswoman Kelley Quinn. "While recent reforms have led to a record low in youth smoking rates in Chicago, we know that big tobacco will continue to find new ways to lure kids to their deadly products, and so there is work left to be done."
Quinn called the ordinance "an important step towards keeping our children from picking up smoking in the first place," adding, "We have worked with aldermen to strengthen it, and we are confident that the City Council will act in the best interest of Chicago’s children."
Triche denied she was serving as a defender of "big tobacco," saying, "Big tobacco's not behind me. Right now, I have dozens of small businesses behind me."
According to Triche, street-corner sales ultimately benefit "gangs," and she also attacked a provision in the pending city ordinance that would set minimum "floor pricing" for packs of cigarettes if the law fails a court challenge, calling that "government-regulated price fixing."
Without actually threatening a suit, Triche made clear that a legal challenge was to be expected if the tax package is approved when it again comes before the City Council next month.
Asked to comment on the mayor's boast that he has the votes to pass it regardless, Ervin said only, "We shall see."
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