Cook County Cooking Up Increase

Board president proposes $1 cigarette tax hike

CHICAGO -- Cook County, Ill., Board President John Stroger is seeking to balance the county's proposed $3.1 billion budget by calling for a doubling of the $1 county tax on a pack of cigarettes. If approved by the County Board, Chicagoans would pay $4.05 in taxes per pack. Smokers in New York City cough up $3.39, said the Chicago Sun-Times.

The proposed tax increase is the third recent slap at smokers, said the report. On December 7, the City Council imposed a smoking ban on virtually all of indoor Chicago, exempting private homes, clubs and lodges, [image-nocss] retail tobacco stores and 25% of hotel rooms. The ban takes effect Jan. 1, 2006, but taverns and restaurant bars have until July 1, 2008, to comply. And last Wednesday, aldermen raised the city's per-pack tax by 20 cents, to 68 cents. That is on top of 98 cents for the state and 39 cents for the federal government.

The county tax was 17 cents until last year, the report said, when it rose another 83 cents. But it raised so much money$130 million compared with $69 million expectedthat Stroger decided to go for another increase, said the newspaper.

A new $2 tax would raise an additional $50 million, according to Stroger. That would enable the county to avoid a property tax hike for the seventh year in a row, the Sun-Times said.

Democratic Commissioner Mike Quigley said the cigarette tax gambit eventually must reach the point of diminishing returns. Stroger, he said, "better hope [residents] chain-smoke at home."

Taxes do not need to be raised at all if the board can find the will to "streamline and restructure" county government, Quigley said. He noted that he introduced a county smoking ban, mirroring the city's, two weeks ago and fully anticipates it will pass.

Some commissioners have urged Stroger to earmark new cigarette tax revenue for health care, but to no avail, the report said.