City increases crackdown on illegal cigarette sales - Fox 2 News Headlines

City increases crackdown on illegal cigarette sales

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has tried using the health and anti-smoking argument to salvage his plan to raise Chicago's cigarette tax by 75-cents-a-pack.

Now, he's trying a new tack to appease aldermen concerned about black market sales and the ancillary crime it brings: enforcement.

The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection is increasing — from four employees to six — a "special enforcement unit" that confiscated 31,000 packs of unstamped cigarettes last year, up 50 percent from 2011, the Sun-Times is reporting.

Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner of the city department, said she's also stepping up coordination with Chicago Police officers assigned to crack down on the sale of loose cigarettes.

While Krimbel was testifying at City Council budget hearings Thursday, the mayor's office was issuing a news release touting the crackdown as a "50 percent increase" in enforcement.

It noted that, already this year, police have made 781 arrests and issued 490 citations for the sale of single cigarettes. That's up from 734 arrests and 274 citations during all of 2012.

After getting off the hot seat, Krimbel argued that past cigarette tax hikes at the county, state, and federal levels have not impacted black market sales.

"If people are going to sell unstamped cigarettes, they're going to sell unstamped cigarettes. They don't really care what the tax is because they're not paying it," she said.

But she said, "We're going to step up enforcement and work closer with the Police Department because we want to make sure there isn't an increase…Whether a problem actually exists and you have data to prove it or whether somebody really believes it exists is really irrelevant. It's a problem and it needs to get addressed."

If the crackdown was aimed at appeasing aldermen determined to snuff out the $10 million-a-year tax, it didn't work with African-American aldermen.

They're still concerned an increase that will leave Chicago with the nation's highest combined state and local tax rate will hurt retailers in border wards and encourage even more people to stand on street corners hawking loose cigarettes, exacerbating a black market already worse than it is for illegal drugs.

"People can't afford cigarettes now. As the potential profit gets higher, people will do this more. They will be overrun with people selling ‘loosies.' Two [more employees] are not enough," said Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council's Black Caucus.

Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) said she, too, is determined to kill the tax and find the $10 million in revenue somewhere else.

"If we can acquire that amount of money somewhere else — I just believe we can," she said.

At one point during Thursday's testimony, Ald. Jim Balcer (11th) said that the city could sell off the 31,000 packs of illegal cigarettes seized last year.

"I mean — we're looking to make money," Balcer said.

Krimbel replied, "I actually brought that up and Dr. [Bechara] Choucair took my face off. I don't believe it's something that we're going to do. And I do believe Dr. Choucair is correct. We shouldn't be in the business" of promoting smoking.

Earlier this week, Choucair, the health commissioner, went on the offensive for the most controversial element of Emanuel's 2014 budget, armed with, what he called an "independent analysis" conducted by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

It concluded that the 75-cents-a-pack increase would convince 5,500 adults to quit smoking and 6,400 kids not to take their first puff.

The study further concluded that the tax would "save 3,500 lives long-term from premature death related to tobacco" and save the city $235 million in long-term health care costs.

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