Tobacco tax surrounded by smoke and minors

By Editorial Board

At Columbia, students and faculty joke that it is impossible to walk from one campus building to another without getting caught in a cloud of cigarette smoke.

This story may seem a little dramatic, but it’s also how some tourists describe the entire city of Chicago.

Tourists have loathed Chicago’s poor air quality for decades, suggesting the city’s pollution problem makes them choke.

However, a bill introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the City Council Jan. 13 could discourage some smokers from contributing to the city’s air quality problems.

The mayor’s proposed ordinances are part of a national trend as cities raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The new age requirement would also raise Chicago’s taxes on tobacco products, which the mayor said would feed $6 million a year into Chicago Public Schools to support summer orientation programs for incoming high school freshmen, according to a Jan. 13 press release from the Mayor’s Press Office.

While the mayor claims he’s pushing these ordinances now because he is concerned for the health of his constituents, many are questioning whether there’s another motive behind the ordinances.

A Jan. 17 Chicago Tribune article said Emanuel’s proposal was based primarily on a study by the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. that recommends raising the legal age for buying tobacco.

The study suggests that 21-year-olds will be more mature than 19- or 20-year-olds and that they would be more likely to reject the harmful habit. Nearly 90 percent of daily adult smokers surveyed in the study said they began smoking before age 19, so establishing ways to deter young people from smoking is a worthy effort.

But why should the revenue from tobacco products go to CPS rather than the Chicago Department of Public Health? If the Mayor is aiming for a healthy Chicago, it would be sensible to give that money to the department that can reasonably address the problem.

Is the mayor’s plan to funnel the tax revenue into CPS’ budget just a veiled attempt to repair his relationship with minority residents?

Emanuel claims his concern about youth smoking also stems from a perception that tobacco companies are targeting young people more and more aggressively, and while that may be true, he’s not acknowledging that kids today are already surrounded by media messages telling them not to pick up cigarettes.

The Truth anti-smoking campaign that shows commercials on networks like MTV has aired some of the most cringeworthy yet straightforward ads telling young adults they’ll regret trying tobacco.

Some of the commercials feature scenes like a young girl pulling skin from her face to pay for cigarettes to represent the power of addiction and the biological damage of cigarettes.

These ads convey strong, memorable messages that would likely counteract any of the tobacco companies’ marketing campaigns.

Chicago certainly has a smoking problem, but the city faces many other health crises that are arguably more critical and deserving of Emanuel’s attention, such as the six mental health centers the mayor closed in 2012 that have left so many residents without proper care.

There’s no harm in taxing nonessential products like tobacco, and with CPS in a dire financial state, it’s more than fair to allocate funding to the city’s youth education.

However, Emanuel should be upfront with his motives rather than suggesting smoking is the city’s biggest health concern.