Illegal cigarette fines a financial windfall for Cook Co.

September 12, 2013 (CHICAGO)

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle claims to be winning the war on illegal cigarettes. But smokers in one West Side neighborhood don't believe it.

"Vigorous enforcement encourages compliance and we are pursuing vigorous enforcement," Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle stood alongside untaxed cigarettes, some of the more than 75,000 packs confiscated since 2010, generating from illegal sellers nearly $2 million in fines.

"Cigarette tax enforcement continues to be one of the bright spots in our budget," she said.

Because of increased state, county and city tobacco taxes, in Chicago one pack of Marlboros or Newports with proper state and city stamps cost around $13 when sold legally.

"It's a money thing all the time. It's a money thing with smoking, eating, addiction," said smoker Danny Jackson.

But none of the smokers we interviewed on the west side paid anywhere near $13 for the Newports they bought from neighborhood stores.

All the cigarette packs people showed ABC7 either had no tax stamps, were missing one or another, or had Indiana stamps.

Debra Echols said cheaper, illegal cigarettes are so plentiful in her neighborhood a legally taxed pack would never sell.

"If they're $12 around here they'll sit on the shelf. They're not going to sell and get stale," she said.

Smokers said they buy single cigarettes, also illegal, when they can't afford a six or seven dollar pack.

Preckwinkle, whose county increased cigarette taxes by a dollar a pack this year, acknowledged illegal tobacco was a new underground industry, but said if higher prices reduce smoking, it's worth it.

"This is a terrible self-destructive habit and the extent to which we can reduce the number of young people who ever get started, it's all to the good," she said.

The Preckwinkle administration reports an increase in tobacco tax revenues, but it did not estimate how much the county might be losing from the sales of untaxed cigarettes.

Also, the Cook County Sheriff confirmed earlier this year that cheaper foreign produced cigarettes, including counterfeits, are arriving in the city and sold well under the legally taxed cigarettes.

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