Elk Grove Village tobacco sales ban proposal has retailers fuming
Taking a drag on his cigarette, Tony Tauer pondered the concept of banning tobacco sales in Elk Grove Village.
"Any time government tries to tell people how to live their lives, it never ends well," said the Chicagoan, who works in Elk Grove Village.
Mayor Craig Johnson sees it differently. The longtime leader who's never backed away from a challenge is the force behind a proposed ban on the sale of any tobacco-related products, including e-cigarettes.
If the move is successful, it would make Elk Grove Village the only jurisdiction in the U.S. to ban all tobacco sales, experts including some from the American Cancer Society said.
A hearing on whether to ban sales outright or raise the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21 is scheduled for Dec. 13. The minimum age to buy tobacco is 18 in Illinois, although Buffalo Grove, Lincolnshire, unincorporated parts of Lake County and Naperville have raised the bar to 21.
"Only one product in America -- if used as directed -- is guaranteed to harm you," Johnson said.
Tobacco sales restrictions are lightning rods pitting health advocates against the tobacco industry, retailers and smokers who argue such laws impinge on their rights.
About 190,500 of the projected 600,920 cancer deaths this year in the U.S. will be caused by cigarette smoking, the American Cancer Society estimates. So why is Elk Grove Village alone in considering a ban on tobacco sales?
"Because 36 million people smoke in the U.S. and it resembles prohibition," University of North Carolina tobacco control researcher Kurt M. Ribisl said of a ban. "It isn't viable yet."
Local retailers who sell cigarettes and other tobacco items said they're getting whiplash from mandates that threaten commerce.
On Oct. 11, Cook County commissioners repealed a tax on sweetened beverages like soda after intense pushback from the soft drink industry, retailers and consumers.
A looming cigarette edict is just piling on, said Jayesh Patel, who runs the Smoke Hub shop on Meacham Road in Elk Grove Village. He called the proposed ban "crazy" and fears customers will flock to nearby Roselle, abandoning his shop.
To make a profit, "cigarettes are necessary in a liquor store," Patel said. He suggested ironically, "you should ban liquor, too. Liquor is not healthy."
Sarai Shami, who owns two convenience stores in Elk Grove Village, estimated a ban could cut sales by 10 percent. Plus, customers who stop in for cigarettes purchase other items as well, compounding the losses, she said.
"I'd rather have people be healthy and not smoke ... but it's not stopping a person who's going to smoke," Shami said.
In 2006, Johnson backed a similar proposal that sputtered and a measure restricting public smoking that passed. In 2008, the General Assembly approved a similar Smoke-Free Illinois measure.
Sin tax scorn
Johnson explained that he's not being callous to merchants, noting many smokers give Cook County cigarettes a pass and opt for DuPage County's lower taxes.
The mayor faults lawmakers for depending on tobacco for revenue.
"Government is hooked on ... sin taxes," he said. "Governments love cigarettes and tobacco products because they can tax the daylights out of them. No one complains."
Johnson couldn't say how much the village might lose in sales taxes, but he said Elk Grove could lose up to $40,000 in the tobacco licensing fees that retailers pay. He previously said such losses would not hurt the village.
The mayor knows people battling tobacco-related illness, though none are in his immediate family.
"Just one puff of a cigarette will do some damage," he said. " ... Why have a product guaranteed to harm you sold in this country?"
Illinois Retail Merchants Association Vice President and General Counsel Tanya Triche Dawood said a ban on sales would be "devastating," particularly for convenience stores and gas stations.
"This would make gas stations in Elk Grove Village not viable," she said. "And, I think it would be a serious concern for folks living in the village -- it's lessening the options they have."
At this point, it's not clear how much support the measure has on the village board.
Trustee Jeff Franke opposes banning tobacco sales although he wants to hear from the community. "I don't want to hurt our businesses," he said. "I'm not a smoker, but as far as the laws go it's legal to smoke. I think we should leave it to the adults."
Trustee Patton Feichter supports raising the age to 21 but thinks "it doesn't make sense to ban cigarettes entirely. It would hurt businesses."
Trustee Samuel Lissner, a longtime ex-smoker, backs the age restriction, but regarding a sales ban -- "that's a tough one," he said.
The fight emerging in Elk Grove Village is foreshadowed by a spectacularly controversial effort in small-town Westminster, Massachusetts, where an attempt to ban tobacco sales flamed out in 2014.
Emotions ran so high that officials halted a chaotic hearing in 23 minutes amid boos and choruses of "God Bless America," according to a story in the Sentinel and Enterprise newspaper.
If approved in Elk Grove, a total ban could draw lawsuits.
"It's a safe bet it will be challenged," Northwestern University law professor Nadav Shoked said, adding tobacco companies have a strong economic interest at stake.
Johnson notes that "nothing's decided yet and if we don't take action ... at least we got the discussion going."
"People say, 'well, what about my rights?' Well, we used to have a right to fight duels -- we don't allow that anymore."
Physician Mark Collins has spent much of his career caring for Elk Grove Village-area residents in his family practice and at Amita Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center.
"There isn't any doctor I know who wouldn't want to ban tobacco," he said. "I'm not against human rights or people choosing to smoke, but we know there's an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, emphysema, lung cancer and peripheral vascular disease (from smoking)."
Collins hopes Elk Grove will be a trendsetter as it was in 2006.
"If this is the beginning of that type of step, it would be great," he said.