Tobacco taxes exacerbate street crime in Chicago neighborhoods

Watkins_family_001Pastor Roosevelt Watkins III
Pastors United for Change, Chicago
We all understand that the City of Chicago is in dire need of additional revenue; however, it is critical that policymakers do so in a way that does not exacerbate the violence problem in low income and minority communities across the city.

The mayor’s proposal to raise $6 million dollars by further taxing tobacco would have a negative ripple effect that would increase crime, further aggravate police and community relations, and strip opportunity from struggling young people with tremendous odds already stacked against them.In the mayor’s proposal, a pack of cigars would just about double in price to around $15. Secondly, the proposal would set a minimum price on a pack of cigarettes at $11.50.

None of my perspective is related to the rights of smokers. As an opponent of smoking, I have worked hard to promote anti-smoking campaigns for Chicago’s youth. My concern is rooted in the fact that too many Chicago neighborhoods are already impacted by violence, and dramatic increases to the prices of cigars and cigarettes will only increase the activity of the illegal back-alley market for these products, resulting in more unnecessary altercations with police and more people ending up with criminal records for petty crimes that impair their ability to get a job.

Chicago newspapers have written about the illegal trafficking of tobacco products. The former head investigator for the Illinois Department of Revenue said the problem of cigarette smuggling rivals illegal drug running, and it has grown in volume because the illegal sales can be just as lucrative but with lower penalties than those that come with narcotics convictions. When nearly half of all young black men in Chicago are unemployed and living in poverty, it is understandable how engaging in these petty crimes would be an attractive path to follow. Unfortunately, the growth of this illegal market will leave more people with criminal records, preventing them from getting jobs. It will also open the door for another Eric Garner situation as police will be targeting neighborhoods for illegal cigarette sales which are the same minority communities that have suffered from the police brutality and shootings that have made recent headlines.

Escalating prices also drives the market for loose cigarettes. There is no easier way for kids to start smoking than the sale of loose cigarettes on the street. I know the mayor has a genuine interest in preventing children from smoking, but these are the types of unintentional consequences that the City Council needs to fully think through before passing new taxes affecting these communities.

The proposal will also impact local businesses in these communities that will not be able to compete with prices in the suburbs or Indiana. As a result, jobs and opportunity in these communities further disappear with exorbitant taxes and fees. The cycle is obvious in too many Chicago neighborhoods.

Until we can have true reform in the Chicago Police Department and create programs that bring jobs and opportunity to people impacted by the high unemployment rate, we need to shelve the idea of any tax that will worsen the crime problem on our streets. Chicago can’t afford to cement its underprivileged to a permanent underclass. If we want to stop the violence, we must not create dynamics that will encourage it to grow.

This article is one of series of commentaries from individuals, guests and organizations about what’s important to the Chicago area.

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