Cigarette packs

A selection of cigarettes available at a store in Villa Park. (Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune / December 28, 2012)

Chicagoans who report sales of illegal smokes could be in for a payday.

A new city program, to be launched today by the mayor and the Chicago Department of Public Health, offers $100 cash rewards to people who alert inspectors to illicit tobacco sales.

The effort targets untaxed cigarettes, tobacco sold to minors and cigarettes sold individually. Officials framed the program as a way to help stop teens from smoking, keep taxes flowing into government coffers and protect honest businesses from being undercut by shady retailers.

“We know that kids are the most price-sensitive consumers, so we want to make sure retailers are selling cigarettes at the price they’re supposed to be selling it,” said Dr. Bechara Choucair, the city health department commissioner. “If you lower the price of cigarettes, more kids will be able to afford it and purchase it.”

A website promoting the new program shows two stamps that are on all cigarette containers sold legally in Chicago — one from the state and another from the county. The combined federal, state, city and county taxes for a pack of cigarettes sold in Chicago is more than $7, providing plenty of incentive for retailers to get their smokes on the black market and pad their profit margin.

The city contends such practices are a drain both on government and society, and touts the new reward program as a way to root out illegal sales. Though figures on illegal sales weren’t readily available Sunday, Choucair said illicit tobacco sales happen in the city and members of the public already call in to report those misdeeds.

People wanting to report unlawful tobacco sales under the new program can call 311 and file a complaint with an operator or fill out a form at checkthestamps.org, a city website that shows what the proper tax stamps look like and explains the enforcement effort.

An inspector will be dispatched to investigate claims made through the program, officials said, and those providing information that leads to a conviction are eligible for the $100 payouts. Complainants wanting the reward have to provide their full name and contact information, and investigators might follow up to get more information.

The money for the rewards will come from the city’s corporate fund, Choucair said, but the fines assessed after convictions mean “this program should more than pay for itself.”

mitsmith@tribune.com
Twitter @MitchKSmith