Illinois Eyeballing Cigarette Tax

Retailers again voice opposition, anticipate loss of sales

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The push is on to raise statewide cigarette taxes in Illinois by $1 a pack, reported The Chicago Tribune. The American Lung Association and the American Heart Association are discussing the issue with lawmakers and State Senator Jeff Schoenberg (D) plans to sponsor a bill. A similar proposal passed the Senate in 2007 but died in the House after strong opposition from retail merchants, convenience store operators and gas station owners, said the report.

Although merchants vow to renew their fight, proponents hope the current economic crisis will [image-nocss] give their tax proposal added appeal. They estimate that doubling the cigarette tax-the current fee is 98 cents-would bring Illinois an extra $320 million a year.

"The state is looking for new revenue and this is a smart way to find it," Harold Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest, told the newspaper. Illinois would also save money on health care expenses if higher cigarette prices motivate more people to give up the habit, he argued.

According to the Tribune, citing Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, more than 72,000 adults in Illinois would give up smoking if tax increases were enacted and five-year savings to the state's health care programs would top $40 million.

"The single most-effective measure to keep kids from starting to smoke is to significantly increase the cost of a pack of cigarettes," Schoenberg said in a statement.

But merchants claim the impact would be devastating, especially in these tough times. "We'd see 25% to 30% reductions in our sales," Bill Fleischli, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association and the Illinois Association of Convenience Stores, told the paper. "Small businesses are in the midst of a horrible recession and this will put many out of business. When you're trying to create jobs and expand economic growth, it's not the right thing to do."

Cook County's cigarette tax doubled to $2 a pack in 2006 and the city of Chicago imposes fees of 68 cents a pack.

Separately, the American Lung Association today releases its new "State of Tobacco Control" report. It gives Illinois a grade of "F" on tobacco control and prevention, noting that the state spends $9.5 million a year on programs, a fraction of the $157 million a year recommended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

The state got a "D" for its 98-cent cigarette tax, an "A" for its commitment to smoking restrictions in public places and a "C" for its support for smoking-cessation programs for state employees and for low-income people enrolled in Medicaid.

In its report, the American Lung Association says it anticipates several new attempts to weaken Illinois' year-old public smoking ban this year and is preparing to counter those challenges.