Chicago Enacts New Ordinance: Old Tobacco Legislation Goes Up in Smoke

The Chicago Tribune reported last weekend that the city passed yet another ordinance.  This one makes it illegal for anyone under 21 to buy tobacco products.  In addition, smokeless products, such as vape pens, which contain nicotine, are subject to the surcharge.  Retailers who sell tobacco products will face additional taxes.

I'm not a smoker; this does not effect me personally.  I don't encourage smoking.  My first thought when I read this, though, was, "Really, another regulation?"  Within the last couple weeks or so, the city has issued multiple ordinances, from dictating how many paid sick days workers should be allowed, to placing a tax on home-sharing rentals.  When it comes to regulating the private sector, the City Council is on a roll.

According to the mayor, the new ordinance is intended to promote public health by curtailing smoking among youth.  I'm not opposed to raising the age at which one can purchase cigarettes.  In that regard, the measure is a good idea, though underage people who really want to light up will find ways around the restriction.  It really isn't the city's call to determine at what age legal adults can be allowed to purchase cigarettes or chewing tobacco.

I'm not vehemently against taxes on smoking and chewing tobacco.  Smoking is c choice.  Consumers who can't afford the tax can work to kick the habit or at least cut back, which is a good thing. I do think the new taxes are excessive, considering these products were highly taxed to begin with.  I don't think it was necessary for legislators to "pile on" additional fees.

What I am opposed to is the additional burden the taxes will impose on retailers.  While their purpose appears to be aimed at curbing smoking, the mayor has earmarked the funds for specific programs.  Anticipated revenue will be used for three purposes:

Funding high school orientation classes.  Really?  We need a tobacco tax to pay for something as basic as that?  Yes, I know the schools are in a financial bind, but the state is working on developing a stopgap budget plan.

As you would expect, tax revenue is also needed to pay for enforcement of the ordinance.  It will no doubt be expensive to uphold.  The city is planning sting operations and will issue tickets to retailers who fail to post appropriate signage reminding customers of the law.

Last but not least, the additional revenue will be used for smoking cessation programs targeting youth.  While it's a noble idea, that is not the government's responsibility.  With everything else going on in the city, this shouldn't even be the government's priority, especially if they have to raise taxes to pay for it.  They're depending on people to continue their smoking habits to fund a program to encourage people not to smoke.

Yes, certainly we want to discourage smoking, but that needs to be done at home and in the community.  Such efforts don't need to be subsidized by any government.

City Council members were likely put in an awkward position.  If they didn't vote in favor of the regulations, it would imply that they don't care about freshman orientation or encouraging teens not to smoke.

This strategy seems to be a pattern, as the Airbnb rental surcharges were made to appear as a fund-raising initiative to help the homeless.  This manipulative tactic suggested a character flaw in anyone who voted against the additional charges, insinuating that they have no heart for Chicagoans who live on the streets.

All that said, let's just call it what it is: another way to raise more money.  Unfortunately, this never-ending thirst for more cash flow comes especially at the expense of small businesses.

The continuous onslaught of ordinances is proving to be confusing, not to mention costly, for small businesses.  Not only will retailers have to learn, and train their employees to adhere to, a new tangle of regulations, but a misstep could put them out of business.  I'm not advocating for people who break the law, but I believe the penalties for selling cigarettes to underage youth are a bit steep.

Fines for selling tobacco products illegally are higher than ever.  First-time offenders will have to shell out $5,000, which is double the pre-ordinance amount.  Repeat offenses cost $10,000.  People who sell tobacco products to people underage could also face up to six months of jail time.

If you break a law, be prepared to face the consequences.  Heavy fines are meant to be a deterrent for those who would otherwise want to see what they could get away with.

Let's go back to grade school history class for a moment, though, and visit that venerable document called the United States Constitution.  The Eighth Amendment reads, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."  Some type of penalty is in order for breaking the law, but these fines are unreasonable.

Six months of jail times seems a bit over the top, too.  While there are similar penalties and age restrictions regarding alcohol, tobacco should not be treated the same way.  Alcohol use and abuse have such far-reaching consequences.  Tobacco, while still detrimental to one's health, does not pose the same types of risks.  Anyone ever tell you to hand over your keys because you smoked too many cigarettes to drive safely?

It is beginning to reach a point where the city keeps passing so much legislation compromising small businesses that, instead of raising extra revenue, it is forcing entrepreneurs to close up shop altogether or at least take their businesses out of Chicago or Cook County.

While some may argue that this still leaves room for the larger corporations who can afford the tax burden, they may reach the place where they won't put up with it, either.  Nevertheless, we don't realize the damage being done to our communities by legislating financial ruin for small businesses, which have been the backbone of the American economy.

There is some optimism among critics that the ordinance will not be able to stand. According to state law, municipalities do not have the right to levy taxes on chewing tobacco.  We can keep the age limit or not, but the excessive tax burden must be struck down.

Filed under: News

Leave a comment