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Increase in cigarette tax will save lives, county health system, Preckwinkle says

Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by LIsa Donovan

Still locking in the votes needed for the $1-a-pack cigarette tax hike she’s pushing, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stood in the trauma unit of the county’s flagship public hospital Tuesday and talked about how the tax could stem the toll smoking takes on residents as well as the county’s public health and hospital system.

The hike would push the combined tax on a pack of cigarettes to $6.67 in Chicago — the second-highest in the nation behind New York City at $6.86 — but would save some 10,300 Cook County residents from premature, smoking related deaths and trigger a 7.2 percent drop in young smokers, Preckwinkle said, citing statistics from the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“Cigarettes are harmful, addictive and for years have put young people on a path to poor health and taken a toll on our communities,” Preckwinkle told reporters inside a “shock trauma room” at John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County, on the city’s West Side. The private room is where those critically wounded in shootings, stabbings even car wrecks are treated and even undergo surgery. The room was quickly sanitized after Tuesday’s news conference so a patient could be treated there.

The tax hike would bring in $25 million next year, and Preckwinkle says those dollars will help defray the costs of running a trauma unit like the one at Stroger — or any of the rest of the county’s roughly $1 billion public health operation which counts a second hospital and more than a dozen clinics serving the poor and uninsured.

Every day, doctors in the county health and hospital system diagnose a patient with lung cancer, 90 percent of them smokers. And it costs about $60,000 to treat a lung cancer patient, according to county statistics.

While she surrounded herself with plenty of anti-smoking advocates at Tuesday’s press event, Preckwinkle has been lining up county commissioners to pass the measure.

She wasn’t saying whether she had the nine “yes” votes — the minimum number needed to pass the measure.

Right now, eight out of the 17 commissioners are sponsors on the county legislation to increase the tax — but it’s too soon to say she’s failed or close to winning.

“I hope the eight sponsors hold — some of them have a reputation for sponsoring and abandoning issues,” said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, among the eight sponsors.

He said he’ll stand in support of the cigarette tax increase — because, he says, he pushed for such a hike last year but it failed. In fact, he’s miffed because he believes Preckwinkle has trotted out the idea this year as if she came up with it.

“She presents an idea that I presented first and she takes full credit for it,” Suffredin said, adding: “I commend the president for doing something that should have been done last year.”

Commissioner Edwin Reyes, another sponsor and a presumed “yes” vote on the hike, told the Sun-Times that while he agrees smoking is a public health issue he’s not sold on the idea that it will bring in a lot of money.

“I’m still undecided,” saying he’s concerned it won’t be a reliable funding stream since cigarette revenues are several million dollars below what was projected this year for the county.

Commissioner Robert Steele, another sponsor, said he’s hearing some complaints from constituents about the cigarette tax. He says he’s talking with several other commissioners to see whether alternate revenue sources — or other savings — can be found in lieu of the cigarette tax increase. He declined to talk specifics and stressed that it shouldn’t signal he’s not for the tax hike.

“I gave the president my initial support for it, but it’s also my job to listen to all sides,” said Steele, whose district fans out over parts of downtown and the city’s West and South sides. “It’s not a good time to continue to increase taxes on the public.”

The other five who signed on as sponsors include powerful head of the finance committee John Daley, her floor leader Commissioner Jesus Garcia and fellow Democrats Jerry Butler, Jeffrey Tobolski and Deborah Sims.

Democratic Commissioners Earlean Collins and William Beavers, a former Chicago alderman who used to smoke in the ante-room behind City Council chambers even though a smoking ban was in place, both gave the tax plan a thumbs down.

“I’m not for any taxes. OK? Bye,” Beavers said in a brief interview.

Republican commissioners Gregg Goslin, Peter Silvestri and Liz Gorman also are “no” votes.

“Once again it’s pushing consumers to do business across county lines,” said Gorman, a suburban Republican who listened to business owners complain about losing business to neighboring counties when Cook County hiked the sales tax in 2008.

Commissioners John Fritchey, a North Side Democrat, and Timothy Schneider, a Northwest suburban Republican, weren’t ready to make a final decision Tuesday on how they’ll vote while commissioners Bridget Gainer and Joan Murphy, both Democrats, couldn’t be reached for comment.

The cigarette tax hike is part of the roughly $3 billion spending proposal Preckwinkle unveiled last week. A final vote on the 2013 budget isn’t expected until next month.



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