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Dig deeper for smokes in Cook County

Friday, March 01, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by John Byrne

On the eve of a $1-per-pack Cook County cigarette tax increase, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stood in the glow of X-rays showing damaged lungs, surrounded by some of Stroger Hospital's top pulmonary specialists as she discussed how smoking shortens people's lives.

The setting and talking points made clear the message Preckwinkle wanted to convey Thursday: This is a public health problem, one she plans to fight by giving smokers an incentive to quit and teens a reason not to start.

But the county's tax increase is more than just a campaign to protect people from emphysema and lung cancer. Preckwinkle is counting on $25.6 million this year from the move to help balance the budget. The history of cigarette tax increases suggests the county will be lucky to get that much in 2013 and should expect diminishing returns in the years ahead.

Smokes are a financial well that public officials have gone to repeatedly to shore up shaky finances at the local and state level. When the county tax increase takes effect Friday, a pack of cigarettes purchased in Chicago will come with $6.67 tacked on by the city, county and state. That's just behind New York City's nation-leading $6.86 in taxes per pack. It will also push the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Chicago to as much as $11.

Recent cigarette tax increases have had only a short-term benefit to the government bottom line. Some people quit, while others buy cigarettes online or outside the county or state.

When the county last raised the cigarette tax — by $1 per pack in 2006 — collections initially shot up by $46.5 million, hitting $203.7 million, county records show. But by 2009, the county collected $20.4 million less than it had in 2005.

Mayor Richard M. Daley bumped up the city of Chicago's share of the cigarette tax by 32 cents in 2005 and another 20 cents in 2006, to 68 cents per pack. He saw collections rise from $15.6 million in 2004 to $32.9 million in 2006, according to a city report. But city cigarette tax revenue fell to $28.4 million in 2007, and continued dropping to $18.7 million by 2011, records show.

At the state level, Quinn pushed through a $1-a-pack hike in June.

Before that, state lawmakers and Gov. George Ryan agreed on a 40-cent increase in 2002. Cigarette tax proceeds went up by more than $178 million in 2003, to $643.1 million, and rose to $729.2 million in 2004. The revenue then fell steadily to $549 million by 2010 before edging back up to $580 million last year, according to state records.

The county is preparing for the windfall from the $1 increase to be strong this year, then decline. County officials project that after bringing in $25.6 million for the remainder of this budget year, the increase will net about $29 million for 2014, $21 million in 2015, $15 million in 2016 and just $9 million in 2017.

Preckwinkle says that's OK with her."My hope would be that over the long run this is no longer a way in which governments look to raise money, because fewer and fewer people are smoking," she said. "So I would hope that we have the effect of reducing our revenue because more people quit.

"The county could end up saving money as cigarette tax revenue falls because uninsured people with ailments related to smoking are such a heavy financial burden to the public hospital system, Preckwinkle said.

In the meantime, Preckwinkle pledged to hire more staff this year to crack down on stores selling untaxed packs and large-scale tobacco smuggling from surrounding states. "We anticipate that there may be some noncompliance, as there always is when you institute an increase like this," she said.

Preckwinkle also acknowledged that the higher tax rate will push some smokers into surrounding counties or Indiana to pick up their packs, but she predicted such cross-border runs will not last.

"While people may initially, when the prices rise, go to other states — Indiana, Wisconsin or wherever — over time that trek gets very tiresome and time-consuming, and they return to their former habits of buying their cigarettes nearby," Preckwinkle said.

But David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said he thinks the cigarette taxes in Cook County are now so high compared with surrounding areas that smokers will continue to make the longer drive, and Illinois stores near jurisdictions with lower taxes will struggle even more.

"You might see people return to their old patterns if we were talking about a slight disparity, say 25 cents a pack," Vite said. "But now we're talking about a difference of nearly $3 a pack compared to Indiana, almost $30 a carton. You're going to see guys working in factories saying, 'It's my week to make a run,' heading to Indiana and coming back with $1,500 worth of cigarettes for all their co-workers."



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