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Alderman favors raising smoking age to 21, mayor hesitant

Updated: May 24, 2013 6:23AM

Chicago should consider banning cigarette sales to smokers under 21 to slow an epidemic of teen smoking, an influential alderman said Monday.

Hours after New York City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn proposed raising her city’s legal smoking age from 18 to 21, Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) talked about Chicago following the Big Apple’s lead.

“That’s something worth exploring because more kids are smoking now,” said Cardenas, who didn’t immediately provide data to back that up.

In 2009, nearly 1 in 5 high school students — or 20 percent — smoked cigarettes. Teen smoking has dropped every year since the 1990s, but progress was slowing by 2009, according to the latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cardenas has proposed that young people under 21 be prohibited from purchasing energy drinks in Chicago.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel hesitated when asked whether he, too, wants to consider following New York City’s lead by banning cigarette sales to smokers under 21.

“Well, as you know, one of the principal ways we pay for expanding health care for our children is through a cigarette levy that was placed in 1997, part of the balanced budget act. And I’ve been always supportive of that effort to make sure all our kids get health care,” Emanuel said.

“I don’t know the New York option. I haven’t seen what you are referring to. I know that President Obama was talking about raising the cigarette fee to pay for early childhood education…. Starting next year, all kids [in Chicago Public Schools] are gonna get full-day kindergarten. We’re also expanding our pre-K for the first time. So, when you say, `Will you comment on what New York’s doing?—I’m focused on what the people of Chicago are gonna get.”

In 1998, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) convinced the City Council to impose hefty fines on minors caught smoking or having tobacco products in public places.

The following year, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley required Chicago merchants to card minors buying cigarettes to put teen smoking on par with underage drinking.

The move was aimed at closing a loophole in Chicago’s teen smoking law. At the time, merchants were permitted to sell cigarettes to anyone who “appears” to be over 18. They were not required to card them.

In 2005, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) proposed raising the age when smokers could legally purchase cigarettes from 18 to 19.

Burke said then he wanted to “give young people one more year to mature and consider whether they wish to embark upon a lifetime of addiction to tobacco products.”

At the time, more than 5 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 used tobacco products with 3,000 more getting hooked every day.

Despite Burke’s insistence, Chicago never did join Suffolk County, N.Y. and the states of Alaska, Utah and Alabama in raising the smoking age from 18 to 19.

Burke had earlier convinced Chicago restaurants to remove cigarette vending machines accessible to minors. Street distribution of free samples of cigarettes was also banned at Burke’s request.

Contributing: Monifa Thomas

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