Emanuel tobacco tax package stalls


Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

By John Byrne, Chicago Tribune

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s bid to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products in Chicago to 21 stalled Monday after aldermen complained that tax increases in the ordinance would further drive up illegal cigarette sales and hurt city businesses.

During more than three hours of testimony before the City Council Finance Committee, lobbyists representing convenience stores raised the possibility of a lawsuit if the measure passed. In the end, committee Chairman Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, did not bring the proposal for a vote.

The mayor’s push for tobacco tax increases for years have faced opposition in the City Council, especially from aldermen representing wards on the city’s borders where smokers can easily cross into the suburbs or Indiana to buy cheaper cigarettes.


Emanuel has often overcome such pushback by framing the moves as part of a crusade to prevent teen smoking. But the latest effort comes with the mayor politically weakened due to the fallout from the Laquan McDonald shooting, emboldening aldermen to act independently and making it tougher for Emanuel to count on majority support for his signature proposals.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, chairman of the Black Caucus, said business owners in his South Side ward are already having trouble turning a profit.

“We’re having a problem with taxes and with our retailers. And the big problem is, quite frankly, I believe ordinances like this that devastate communities of color in particular or those of a lower socio-economic background,” Sawyer said.

Far Southwest Side gas station owner Raleigh Kean pointed to Emanuel’s record property tax increase package and a minimum wage increase the mayor championed as among the rising costs he said are making it tough for small businesses in the city.

A crowd of 7-Eleven franchisees in the gallery applauded when aldermen spoke against the plan.

The proposal calls for a 15-cent tax per “little cigar,” raising the cost of a 20-pack of some varieties such as Swisher Sweets from $5.79 to $8.79, according to the Emanuel administration. The mayor would impose a 90-cent tax on larger cigars.

The mayor also wants a tax of $1.80 per ounce on smokeless tobacco, bumping the price of a 1.2-ounce can from $4.19 to $6.35; and a $6.60-per-ounce tax on roll-your-own tobacco, raising the average price of a “small pouch” from $7.25 to $11.54.


Emanuel’s 2016 budget already includes taxes on electronic cigarettes set to bring in about $1 million. And he included a 50-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes in his 2014 budget, which brought Chicago’s combined federal, state and local per-pack tax to $7.17 — the highest in the nation.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita told aldermen Monday that while the new taxes would raise roughly $6 million per year, the focus is on making tobacco too expensive for young people, not simply raising revenue.

But West Side Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, said neighborhoods in his ward are already seeing a spike in the sale of illegal loose cigarettes that lead to other crime and make it difficult for legitimate tobacco retailers to compete.

“I implore you to walk down Madison [Street] with me, from Hamlin all the way to Kostner, and you will see the real consequences of what we’re talking about,” Ervin told Morita. “This is not theoretical. This is not something that I dreamed up.”

Mayoral spokesman Adam Collins said the administration would “continue speaking to and working with aldermen on this ordinance that will prevent young people from picking up smoking” but did not specify what changes Emanuel might make to win council support.

Burke said he didn’t call for a vote on the ordinance because he didn’t believe the committee had a quorum present. Yet the committee proceeded through the rest of its agenda, voting on items called by Burke.

Among the measures the committee approved was a $3.1 million payment to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department alleging Chicago Police Department residency requirements discriminated against 47 foreign-born applicants seeking to become police officers.

The committee also approved a $200,000 settlement to Jonathan Hadnott in a case in which a federal judge sanctioned the city law department for withholding records.

Hadnott had sued, accusing police of making an illegal arrest and search of his mother’s home in 2006. The city argued at the first trial that Hadnott’s claim was impossible, contending there wasn’t enough time for officers to stop Hadnott, run his name through the law enforcement database, search the house and be back at the station at the time shown in records.

After that trial ended in a partially hung jury, lawyers were preparing for a retrial when city attorneys turned over records showing it actually took officers about a minute to run Hadnott’s name through the database.

The committee also approved a $220,000 settlement for Tiffany Hondras, who said she was illegally detained and searched by police in 2011.

The full City Council will consider the settlements Wednesday at its meeting.

(c) 2016 the Chicago Tribune

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