Chicagoland’s war on cigarettes is as ongoing as its wars on drugs, gangs and guns.
In December, the Evanston City Council passed a law. ban on flavored tobacco productsIncluding menthol as of April 1. Whatever the city leaders’ (presumably noble) intentions in this move, it points to a larger problem. Despite Chicagoland’s experience grappling with the failures of Prohibition, governments there adopted policies that not only didn’t work for smokers and nonsmokers alike, but actively made the problem much worse.
Perhaps the most egregious example of failure is the Cook County cigarette tax. The $3 cigarette tax alone is among the highest in the country; When city, state and federal taxes are added, the total tax on a pack of cigarettes purchased in Chicago is the highest in the country, at approximately $7.16 per pack. In fact, this tax plan is so ridiculous that cities in Cook County represent four of the top five highest cigarette tax burdens in the USA
Nonsmokers may have a hard time sympathizing with those who spend nearly $20 on a pack of cigarettes, but the economic and social consequences of this policy are shouldered by all residents of Cook County. Local businesses, especially small retailers, bear the brunt of this tax in the form of lost business as smokers faced with higher prices choose to move to neighboring counties or states with lower tax rates to purchase their cigarettes. This situation both reduces local business revenues and shifts the tax revenue pool to other regions.
Moreover, the cigarette tax unknowingly creates fertile ground for the black market. The significant price differential driven by the tax encourages illegal trade, further undermines legal sales, and also poses a threat to public safety that is already a problem for Chicagoland retailers.
Illegal trade can exacerbate negative interactions with the police. To talk Evanston’s flavor tobacco banClyde McLemore, founder of the Black Lives Matter Lake County chapter, warned: “This will create an illegal market for cigarettes to be sold on the street. … This will lead to unnecessary contact with your law enforcement agency.”
Local and state governments are not safe from this either. A report recently published by Tax Foundation found that excessive cigarette taxes as well as policies such as flavor bans often lead to an increase in cigarette smuggling and a decrease in the state’s tax revenue. Illinois remains one of the worst offenders, with more than $300 million lost to illicit trade in 2021.
Unfortunately for Cook County’s most ardent anti-smoking advocates, Chicago is a victim of its own geography; It borders Indiana and is not far from Wisconsin; Both have a lower cigarette tax burden. Of course, Illinois borders the relatively low-tax states of Iowa and Kentucky, as well as Missouri, which is known as a center for cigarette smuggling. There is no tax for traveling across state lines (much to the dismay of local and state policymakers, of course), and there is no practical way for the city’s law enforcement to control the flow of cigarettes.
The county cigarette tax also raises social equity issues. So-called sin taxes aimed at deterring certain behaviors, such as smoking, are often lowest income and education levelrepresents only a fraction of the targeted tax base. These vulnerable populations and others like them are already you are more likely to smoke and especially if you have difficulty quitting smoking; Having less money in their pockets due to regressive and punitive taxes only increases stress and encourages smoking, and so the cycle continues.
It is clear that regular smoking poses a significant health risk that should not be encouraged; Tobacco companies should not be protected or rewarded for predatory marketing tactics that seduce youth and other vulnerable populations. But taxing and banning nicotine products doesn’t work.
Illinois looks a lot like my home state California, has never encountered a tax or ban it didn’t like, leading to a laundry list of problems exacerbated by shortsighted regulations. Rather than pushing through tired regulatory frameworks like Cook County’s cigarette tax, Chicagoland should take a more holistic approach that includes proven tobacco harm reduction strategies, including education, counseling and smoking cessation products.
Prohibition taught us that people who really want something will get it one way or another; This is as true today as it was 100 years ago. Raising cigarette prices (limiting legal supply) rather than helping people reduce their nicotine addiction (affecting demand) is irresponsible policymaking at best. If Chicago’s withered effort to regulate alcohol is any indication, its ongoing backwards approach to regulating smoking will likely burn to the ground, as it should.
Gabe Benitez is a fundraising specialist at the University of Chicago and also a volunteer with the Chicago Covenants project and Crossing Party Lines.