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At $7.17, Chicago has the highest per-pack tax for cigarettes in the nation. In November, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed through a 50-cent-per-pack hike to encourage Chicagoans to quit smoking and prevent teenagers from starting. The tax was good news for health care advocates. 

So was Wednesday’s announcement by CVS. The nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain stated that it would stop selling cigarettes in all its stores in October. The decision underscores the consensus that smoking is a major public health issue and a major drain on public dollars.

Despite a decline in smoking since the 1960s, ThinkProgress reported: “Smoking has killed over 20 million Americans in the last 50 years. About 400,000 people a year die from smoking-related diseases. And a report by the surgeon general predicts that 5.6 million children in the United States will die prematurely unless rates of smoking drop further. That directly impacts American consumers in the form of health costs. The country spends about $96 billion annually on health care related to smoking illnesses — and about $58.3 billion of that comes from the government, meaning it’s a cost passed on to taxpayers.”

About 19 percent of adults nationwide are smokers. In Illinois, that number is slightly higher at 20 percent, according to 2011 data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What’s telling is who smokes cigarettes. Race and class matter. Nationally, the smoking rate among Asians is about 10 percent; for Latinos it is about 13 percent; for blacks, it’s 19 percent, slightly lower than the rate for whites, and for American Indians/Alaska Natives, it’s 31.5 percent. The smoking rate for poor people is almost as high: For those who live below the federal poverty level — $23,550 for a family of four — the smoking rate is 29 percent, according to the CDC.

Cities and states have boosted cigarette taxes and banned smoking indoors and in public places to nudge smokers into quitting. But health care advocates know that hiking the price of cigarettes can’t compare to  health care services that can provide incentives and support to help poor people quit smoking.


María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...