The city's top medical official Tuesday defended Mayor Rahm Emanuel's effort to boost the city cigarette tax by describing the proposal as a public health initiative rather than a way to raise new revenue.
The city's top medical official Tuesday defended Mayor Rahm Emanuel's effort to boost the city cigarette tax by describing the proposal as a public health initiative rather than a way to raise more money.
Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, cited predictions of reduced and prevented smoking that would result from the tax hike, assertions made by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an anti-smoking group.
"So this tax is a public health win," Choucair told aldermen. "Absolutely it saves lives."
Choucair testified before the City Council Budget Committee on Emanuel's proposed 2014 budget, which includes a cigarette tax hike of 75 cents a pack to raise about $10 million. That would increase the total taxes on a pack of cigarettes in Chicago to $7.42, the highest in the nation.
About $1 million of the new tax revenue would go to expand free vision programs for low-income Chicago Public Schools students and enroll more low-income kids in Medicaid. The rest would be used to help balance the budget.
Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, noted that it's common political practice when tax increases are proposed "to link that to a program that everyone feels good about, like getting children good eyeglasses and eye exams."
Reilly and other aldermen have expressed concerns that the increase would send smokers across city borders to buy cigarettes and other products they usually purchase at the same time.
"I'm just concerned that this could pose a potential boon for suburban retailers who are literally across the street from the city of Chicago and put some of our (retailers), especially gas station owners, at a competitive disadvantage," Reilly said.
Other aldermen have expressed concerns that the tax would boost black market sales of cigarettes and inflict the biggest financial hit on minority smokers for whom leaving the city to buy cigarettes is far more difficult. In response, Choucair said the tax could provide health benefits to more minorities than other city residents.
Choucair also defended a city program that provides mammograms to low-income women in response to a Tribune story that detailed how the city was looking into privatizing those services after the state cut off funding because of alleged mismanagement. The city is not going to outsource the program, he said.
"In our 2014 budget, we're proposing to keep that program whole, all of our mammography sites up and running and continue funding that program," said Choucair, who added that there have been discussions with state officials about renewing funding. "We're exploring options to actually even expand those services."
In July, the city sent out notices of potential layoffs of workers in the program as it explored farming out the work to federally funded nonprofit clinics. The state, meanwhile, had accused the city of taking too long to refer women with abnormal screenings for further tests and having unqualified personnel diagnose women with abnormalities.
Mercy Hospital had stopped working with the city because of nonpayment, and city statistics showed that the number of patients in the city program had dropped to 2,914 in the year ending June 30 from 4,942 four years earlier.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun