Cigarette tax and $6 packs have area smokers fuming

Breanne Gilpatrick

Evanston smokers have started rethinking their cigarette purchasing habits after the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance increasing the county cigarette tax by 82 cents per pack.

The change went into effect Thursday and raised the average price of a pack of cigarettes in the Chicago area to about $6.

Mohammed Abdul Hakeem, who works for his son Azim Hakeem at Evanston Pipe & Tobacco, 923 Davis St., said he already has had five customers say they plan to go to Lake County to purchase cigarettes.

Hakeem, who sold the store to his son about five years ago, also said he has noticed more customers purchasing tobacco to roll their own cigarettes because the new county tax only applies to cigarettes — not cigars, pipe tobacco or chewing tobacco. One customer even came in Saturday to purchase a pipe to avoid the higher cigarette costs, Hakeem said.

“Maybe it’s good for our business because we sell more pipes and pipe tobacco,” he said.

Hiren Patel, manager of Evanston 1st Liquors, 1019 Davis St., said he’s selling fewer cigarettes.

“People would come in and buy three or four packs everyday, ” he said. “They don’t buy that many anymore.”

But despite the slight change he has seen in cigarette sales so far, Patel said he still agrees with the tax change.

“If you think about business, it’s not good for business,” he said. “But if you think about the health of the people, it’s good for them.”

Smokers at Northwestern said they also have changed how they buy cigarettes. Weinberg freshman Timothy Chang said he and his friends stocked up on cigarettes before April 1 because they knew the tax increase was coming. Chang, who smokes about half a pack a day, said the new tax isn’t going to stop him from smoking. He said he’s just going to buy cigarettes online or out of state.

The Cook County board raised the cigarette tax to $1 per pack Feb. 24 to help balance the 2004 budget. This is the first increase since 1997, when the county tax was raised from 10 cents to 18 cents.

The increase is predicted to raise $32.4 million in additional funds, said Barbara Bruno, director of the Cook County Department of Revenue. The estimate takes into account the decrease in sales caused by the tax, Bruno said. Revenue will go into the corporate, public safety and health funds in the Cook County budget, she said.

Cook County Board President John Stroger endorsed the ordinance — proposed by 8th district Commissioner Roberto Maldonado — as part of the county’s fight against tobacco, said Caryn Stancik, Stroger’s spokeswoman.

But non-smoker Jason Hawbecker said he doesn’t think the increase is going to do much to stop smokers.

“If you’re addicted to something, from an economic standpoint, you’re very inelastic,” said Hawbecker, a Weinberg sophomore. “You’re just going to pay whatever they charge regardless.”

The Cook County cigarette tax increase came just weeks before the Evanston Human Services Committee meets April 12 for another discussion on a potential ban on smoking in Evanston restaurants. Skokie and Wilmette already have passed similar bans.

Although smoker and Evanston resident Anjali Gumbhir said she supports the tax increase, she is opposed to a smoking ban in Evanston restaurants. Gumbhir said she already has started avoiding restaurants in Skokie because of the smoking ban there. She said policies like the smoking ban and the tax increase won’t get her to quit smoking half a pack a day.

“Nothing but myself and my own reasons will make me quit smoking,” Gumbhir said. “Becoming a pariah is nothing new.”