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Big stogies to cost 25 cents more starting Thursday — thanks to new county tax

Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Starting Thursday, that $9.50 Tatuaje cigar Michael Muser likes to puff on is going to cost another quarter if he picks one up from one of his favorite downtown Chicago tobacconists.

While it doesn’t mean the 37-year-old West Loop resident will give up what he calls a “sensual experience,” he says Cook County’s new taxes on stogies, loose tobacco and “chew” — which takes effect Thursday — may force him to look beyond Cook County’s borders for one of his favorite indulgences.

“It’s an emotional experience, it’s a communal experience and we like the people we buy from, so this is difficult,” Muser, the wine director at the posh Peninsula Hotel, said Tuesday inside a members-only smoking lounge at Iwan Ries & Co. at 19 S. Wabash in the Loop. “It puts a strain on the relationship I have with the retailer, especially the smaller ones, because it feels good to support them.”

On Thursday, large cigars — defined as those weighing just under half an ounce — will incur an additional 25-cent tax. Smaller cigars will be taxed at an additional nickel apiece. Customers will still have to pay an existing 9.5 percent combined city, state and county sales tax on top of that.

Loose tobacco as well as smokeless tobacco or “chew” will carry a new 30-cent per ounce tax — a rate that will double to 60 cents next year. Taxes on big stogies will go up to 30 cents next year, too.

The cash-strapped county board expanded cigarette taxes to other tobacco as part of the 2012 budget. It is expected to bring in $9.6 million by the end of this year alone.

As he puffed away on a Rocky Patel in the Iwan Ries lounge, 50-year-old Michael Benz, of LaGrange, says his bigger question is how the county — which funds the jail and courts as well as the vast health system — will use the money.

“If there was a level of trust about what government is doing with the money that would be one thing, but a lot of the trust has been squandered over the years,” the bankruptcy attorney said Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Iwan Ries filed a lawsuit against the county and Revenue Director Zahra Ali, calling the tax unconstitutional and saying the ordinance makes it unclear as to whether businesses or consumers must pay the tab.

This week, county commissioners are expected to amend the ordinance — pushed by Board President Toni Preckwinkle — to make it clear that consumers pay the tax.

“We are being overly cautious to ensure that the ordinance will hold up against any legal challenge because taxing tobacco is an effective public policy tool, proven to prevent people from picking up smoking and in helping to encourage current smokers to quit,” said Owen Kilmer, a Preckwinkle spokesman.

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