Cullerton backs buck-a-pack cigarette tax

Senate president proposes tripling hike in Pritzker budget

Senate President John Cullerton backs a hike in the cigarette tax as a health initiative. (Shutterstock)

Senate President John Cullerton backs a hike in the cigarette tax as a health initiative. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

The head of the state Senate is backing a dollar-a-pack hike in the cigarette tax.

Senate President John Cullerton, of Chicago, held a news conference Tuesday in Springfield announcing his support for a buck-a-pack increase in the state cigarette tax.

Although Gov. Pritzker proposed a 32-cent increase in the state tax on a pack of cigarettes in his budget address, Cullerton called that “actually pretty modest” and pitched the larger increase as a public-health initiative.

“We have tripled his initial request because we know from this research that we actually can affect behavior,” he said.

Cullerton pointed out that an estimated 15 percent of the public smokes tobacco, but that percentage is higher among Medicaid recipients.

“We actually save an enormous amount of money on health-care costs,” he added. “If we can eventually have everybody stop paying for cigarettes because they’re too expensive we’ll save billions of dollars.”

According to the Illinois Senate Democrats’ website, Cullerton’s news conference included Dr. Douglas Carlson of the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Shana Crews, Illinois government-relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; Kathy Drea, vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association; Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health; Tom Hughes, executive director for the Illinois Public Health Association; Matt Maloney, director of health policy for Respiratory Health Association; Julie Mirostaw, government relations director for the American Heart Association; and A.J. Wilhelmi, president and CEO of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association.

They issued a joint statement in support, saying: “Investing this tax revenue into the state’s tobacco-prevention and -cessation programs is crucial to preventing kids from starting to use tobacco and helping people already addicted to quit. We’re thankful for President Cullerton’s leadership on this issue and look forward to helping it become law.”

Ezike’s presence suggested Pritzker’s backing, and a Pritzker spokeswoman told the Chicago Tribune he supports the higher proposal.

Cullerton previously backed an increase in the legal smoking age to 21 — a bill Pritzker signed into law a month ago.

Although Pritzker’s budget projected that a 32-cent hike in the state tax on a pack of cigarettes, from $1.98 to $2.30, would raise $55 million, the higher increase might well bring in less, as Cullerton suggests the steeper hike is more likely to change behavior.

Business interests are sure to agree that it’s simply more likely to send smokers living near the border across state lines to buy their smokes elsewhere.

The $1-a-pack hike would raise the Illinois cigarette tax to $2.98 a pack, placing it in the top 10 among states nationally.

Cullerton’s proposal, which he has yet to formally submit, would also hike the tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco from 36 percent to 64 percent of the wholesale price.

Again, Cullerton touted it as a way to save lives and improve the public health, saying, “This is about the most rewarding thing anybody can do in the legislature.”