Possible Cigarette Tax Hike Has Many Smokers Fuming Southland Smokers Feeling Singled Out as County Tries to Plug Budget Hole
Monday, December 22, 2003
by Courtney Greve
Jim Rick leaned against his car, outside the Cheap Tobacco store in Midlothian, and took a long drag on his cigarette.
What does he think of the proposed 82-cent Cook County cigarette tax hike?
"I think it sucks," said the 62-year-old Crestwood man. "I'll go to Indiana or I'll try to quit."
Rick said he's starting to feel like a social pariah.
Restaurants are cutting back their smoking sections, or banning them altogether. The city of Chicago considered an ordinance to stop smoking in all eateries. And a lot of people complained.
"We get herded outside like cows," Rick said.
Cook County's initiative to raise an additional $41 million per year by boosting per pack cigarette taxes to $1 is the latest in a string of taxing efforts that has hit smokers' wallets and tobacco businesses alike.
Smokers around the Southland said they feel unfairly targeted by a government looking to raise cash, and they resent taking on a larger share of the tax burden.
"You shouldn't penalize a smoker without penalizing everybody," said Lufti Latif, who owns Cheap Tobacco on Cicero Avenue.
"The day the prices go up, I'll have to shut my doors," he said. "Anyone can travel 15 or 20 minutes in any direction and save $15 a carton. Why would they buy in Cook County?"
Some tobacco shops already are learning that lesson.
Cigarette distributors are predicting that at least nine tobacco stores in the Southland will close during the first half of 2004, according to the owner of Hickory Tobacco.
"They keep hammering us," said the Oak Forest businessman, who refused to give his name. "When I opened in 1997, a carton cost $19.99 plus taxes. Now it costs $42.99 plus tax."
Anti-smoking advocates have said raising cigarette taxes reduces smoking, especially among minority youth.
"We're losing the battle against cigarettes, particularly with our own children, and we must do something," said Dr. Quentin Young, former head of medical services at Cook County Hospital and a public health advocate.
Young testified at a county board hearing on the tax hike last week. "Increasing this tax works," he said.
An increase in cigarettes taxes can cut down youth smoking by 10 percent and adult smoking by 4 percent, said Joel Africk, CEO of the American Lung Association of Chicago.Tom Kinman disagreed.
"Kids want to be grown up so they smoke," the 41-year-old Mokena shop manager said. "They will find the money to buy cigarettes if they want to."
Rather than discouraging cigarette consumption, the tax may simply send people across the county line to buy their smokes.
"I've been going to Indiana to buy cigarettes for four years," Venus Killines of Chicago.
In Will County, where cigarettes are noticeably cheaper, a steady stream of people flowed into Tobacco House in Mokena.
Some customers, such as Kelly Cappelletti, said the discount tobacco store is the cheapest around. When she moved to Mokena from Indiana two months ago, Cappelletti said she shopped around for the best price.
"I go out of my way for cheap smokes. I go in, ask for the price, and if I don't like it, I leave," she said.
Cappelletti said it is unfair how smokers have been targeted by lawmakers during budget crises.
"I think they can get away with it because they know if you are a true smoker, you'll buy no matter what," she said.
Syed Hasan lit a Marlboro and pointed out that smokers are a target.
"It's completely unfair, especially since the economy is going down and people are watching their money," he said.
That's why many smokers have turned to the Internet.
"I get customers who say their order didn't come in off the Internet so they need a pack or two," Latif said. "Search 'cheap cigarettes' and see how many online sites you get."
The answer: 598,000.
They have names like Cheap-Cigarettes.com, Esmokes.com and DiscountCigarettes-4U.com. Most are based out of Europe and Canada, but some Native American tribes have joined the lucrative business by selling from tax-exempt reservations.
Cook County's cigarette tax will be decided next month.
Staff writer Jonathan Lipman contributed to this report.