Illinois receives failing marks for tobacco reform

By Elizabeth Earl

While Illinois has received praise from public health groups for raising its cigarette excise tax by a dollar last year, one expert predicts the tax hike will spur out-of-state purchases and possibly even promote smuggling.

In its State of Tobacco Control 2013 report released Jan. 16, the American Lung Association gave  Illinois low scores in some categories, including a C in cigarette taxes on an A–F scale, but the state also was given a “thumbs-up” for raising taxes that came into effect in

July 2012.

“There is an incentive to buy your packs outside of Chicago and smuggle them into Chicago,” said Scott Drenkard, an economist for the Tax Foundation, a tax research group based in Washington, D.C.

The Tax Foundation compiled a report this January comparing the 2011 smuggling rates among individual states. Illinois ranked 31st for that year, but the percentages were calculated based on the tax revenues before the 2012

tax increase.

“Since the statewide increase of a dollar a pack, my intuition tells me that smuggling will go up in Illinois as a result of that,” Drenkard said. “With a relatively small drive, you can save that much money by just driving to the suburbs and bringing them back in.”

Still unknown is the effect the tax hike is likely to have on smokers in the 18–25-year-old age group, who make up 34.2 percent (11.7 million) of the nation’s smoking population, according to

the Surgeon General’s Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults report released this January. This is an increase from the approximately 28 percent figure cited by the Centers for Disease Control in a 2008 survey, as reported by  The Chronicle on

May 9, 2011.

Jesse Crochet, a junior graphic design major at Robert Morris University, said he has been smoking for about 1 1/2 years. Because of Chicago’s steep tax on cigarettes—$4.66 in the city, according to Drenkard—he said he purchases his cigarettes in his hometown in Texas and carries them back in

a suitcase.

“[I pay], like, $4 a pack,” Crochet said. “This time, I brought up three cartons with me, so that should be good until I go back [in May].”

While smuggling for personal consumption is fairly common, Drenkard said the larger, more organized form of smuggling cigarettes is troubling. New York City has already begun to see a formation of smuggling rings that lead to violent crime and the sale of cigarettes to minors, he said.

“It’s very profitable to buy cigarettes in Virginia then bring them into New York City and sell them,” Drenkard said. “The [tax] differential there is huge—several dollars. A lot of the tobacco control movement is to stop young smokers from picking up the habit. This is the opposite of that. You’re incentivizing young smokers to get their cigarettes from places that are not asking for proper identification.”

The 2012 tax increase was a response to both financial needs

and public health, said Susan Hofer, an Illinois Department of Revenue spokesperson. She said much of the problem is that Illinois is surrounded by states that have lower tax rates.

Illinois also received F’s in the American Lung Association report for its tobacco prevention control and spending and its support for cessation programs.

The tax may already be reducing public health costs, according  to Melaney Arnold, a representative for the Illinois Department of Public Health. “Anecdotally, we’ve seen that [the tax] has decreased the number of illnesses reported in hospitals for tobacco.”

Arnold said Illinoisans who smoke 10 cigarettes per day will pay $6,500 during the course of five years under the current tax laws. Arnold added that public records state that 16,600 Illinoisans die annually because of smoke-related illnesses.

“Smoking is a very costly business to all of us, not just smokers,” said Kathy Drea, vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Illinois. “That 18–24 age group is a difficult age group. We are trying to target that age group to get that smoking prevalence rate down.”

Crochet said that he began bringing cigarettes back to Chicago with him after he got tired of paying the extra tax. However, he said he did not notice a significant decrease in the number of smokers outside his residence hall when the tax went up.

The Illinois Department of Revenue is taking steps to combat smuggling, according to Hofer.

“Our efforts have been focused on stopping large smuggling organization. If I lived in Belleville [in southwestern Illinois] and worked in St. Louis and wanted to bring home a carton of cigarettes every couple of weeks, no one would argue about that,” Hofer said. “That’s personal use, and that’s perfectly legal. What we’re talking about is bringing in cases of cartons of cigarettes, and that’s what we’re seeking to stop.”