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Preckwinkle's cigarette crackdown nets $1.8 million

Thursday, September 12, 2013
Daily Herald
by Jake Griffin

A crackdown on illegal cigarette sales has netted Cook County more than $1.8 million in fines since County Board President Toni Preckwinkle took office in 2010.

The county has confiscated more than 75,000 packs of cigarettes and issued more than 3,400 citations during the crackdown, Preckwinkle announced Thursday.

Stores in Des Plaines, Arlington Heights and Barrington were recently cited, county officials said. A retailer in Des Plaines had 154 unstamped packs confiscated during a recent inspection, officials said.

"Illegal cigarette sales and smuggling represent a lucrative black market enterprise," she said. "We've seen dealers switch their focus from traditional drugs to smuggling cigarettes ... because it is more profitable and carries less jail time."

Packs of cigarettes sold in Cook County must carry a tax stamp from the state as well as the county. County officials said some packs found during inspections were carrying Missouri stamps.

All types of cigarette retailers are being targeted, including small gas stations, night clubs and big box stores, Preckwinkle said.

County officials said 11,480 loose cigarettes were recently confiscated from a store in Chicago and a $284,000 fine was levied against the store's owner. That fine amounts to nearly $25 for every cigarette confiscated. County officials said fines vary, with the administrative hearing officers having some leeway, but the goal is for the punishment to be "a deterrent."

However, the county would not provide a list of the stores that were cited.

The county expects to bring in $133 million in tobacco tax revenue next year, nearly $5 million more than the county's preliminary budget estimates.

The county instituted a "Cigarette Rewards Program" in 2011, which allows residents to tip off authorities about illegal cigarette sales and receive rewards ranging from $250 to $1,000 if the tip leads to confiscation and paid fines. Over the past two years, 42 tipsters have been eligible for rewards totaling $15,750, Preckwinkle's office stated.

Preckwinkle said the county plans to increase the number of field inspectors dedicated to targeting illegal sales. Sheriff's police also accompany Revenue Department investigators on inspections.

Preckwinkle said the county plans to beef up enforcement efforts in other areas, including other tobacco products, liquor and gasoline, in the coming months.

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