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Stand firm on 75-cent cigarette tax increase, health officials tell mayor

Health Commissioner Dr. BecharChoucair left  Dr. Javette OrgaAmerican Academy Family Physicians lobby for mayor's cigarette tax increase Thursday. |

Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair, left, and Dr. Javette Orgain of the American Academy of Family Physicians lobby for the mayor's cigarette tax increase Thursday. | Fran Spielman~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 23, 2013 2:58PM

Public health officials on Thursday urged a reluctant City Council to raise Chicago’s cigarette tax by 75 cents a pack to persuade young people — the “most price-sensitive consumers ever” — to quit smoking or avoid taking up the deadly habit.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been under intense pressure from aldermen and his own staff to reduce the tax increase from 75 cents to 50 cents a pack.

In particular, the political concession would mean a lot to African-American aldermen who represent wards where the street-corner sale of loose cigarettes is already worse than it is for illegal drugs. It also would appease retailers, particularly those near the city limits, who fear losing ancillary sales that go along with cigarette purchases.

On Thursday, public health officials used the 38th anniversary of the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout to counter all of those arguments — and urge the mayor and his City Council allies to hang tough at 75 cents a pack

“Each quarter drop equals fewer lives saved. Simple math,” said Mark Peysakhovich, senior director of government relations for the American Heart Association.

Dr. Bechara Choucair, the city’s health commissioner, noted that calls to the Illinois Tobacco Help Line skyrocketed — from 7,545 in 2012 to 19,206 in the first 10 months of this year — after the state and county each tacked $1 onto the cigarette tax.

“Out of every three callers, two are African Americans from Chicago. So we know that this works. That’s why we’re really leveraging that public policy” of raising taxes to prod people to quit smoking, Choucair said.

If the real concern is black-market sales of loose cigarettes, the answer is a “federal track-and-trace” program that “electronically follows” every pack of cigarettes — not a lower tax, said Janet Williams, co-chair of the Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco.

“You might have crimes of people bootlegging and robbing trucks of cigarettes. But if it’s a track-and-trace, they know where that chain was broken,” Williams said. “We know there [is] the sale of single cigarettes — and it’s not just happening in Chicago. . . . [But] by making it only a 50-cent increase or a 30-cent increase, it doesn’t get rid of that issue some aldermen are having.”

Williams sloughed off suggestions that convenience stores in particular will lose the $5 or more in additional sales tied to cigarette purchases.

“These stores can make it up with something much more healthy — something that’s still more needed. People don’t need tobacco. But they do need food and water,” she said.

According to the American Cancer Society, one of every three smokers under 26 will quit while another one dies of tobacco-related illness.

That prompted Peysakhovich to close with an ominous warning to aldermen reluctant to support the tax.

“Cigarettes kill a lot more people in this city than guns do. Each aldermen seems to be freaking out about guns,” he said.

“The real crime isn’t selling loosies on the corner,” Peysakhovich said. “The real crime is cheap, deadly product available in minority communities and killing lots more people than guns and bullets do.”

Earlier this week, Emanuel responded with an emphatic “no” when asked if he planned to reduce the 75-cents-a-pack increase aimed at raising $10 million to help balance his 2014 budget and bankroll expanded vision care for Chicago Public School students. The mayor called it a “health care feat” on par with his previous contributions to children’s health care.

Still, the lobbying continues to persuade Emanuel to compromise and accept a modified increase.

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