Cigarette packs

Center: legal package of cigarettes with two stamps, flanked by two illegal confiscated cigarettes, with only one stamp each. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune) (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune / September 30, 2011)

The illegal drug trade in Ald. Jason Ervin's 28th Ward isn't all about the hard stuff.

The black market for cigarettes, he said, can be just as pervasive—and, in some ways, safer for dealers.

"It's similar to the sale of narcotics, where people are establishing certain territories," he said. "A pack of cigarettes in Chicago versus a pack of cigarettes in Hammond or Gary [Ind.] is almost double. That margin is where individuals want to make their mark. There is a profit to be made."

Mike Elyasi's profit margins are much narrower. Elyasi, who co-owns a 7-Eleven franchise on Irving Park Road in Lakeview, said his store sells about $1,000 worth of cigarettes a day at a price of about $10 to $12 per pack. Depending on the brand, he said, his store makes a profit ranging from 40 cents to $1.20 per pack.

"In comparison to other products, it's a fraction," he said.

Compare that to the profit Ervin says can be made from selling tobacco illegally.

"Let's say someone takes a $5 pack of cigarettes out of Hammond, Ind.," he said. "Once they start selling them loose, they have the opportunity to make 10, 13 dollars."

As part of an attempt to crack down on illegal cigarette sales, the city on Monday announced a "Check the Stamps" reward program, offering $100 rewards to citizens whose tips about illegal cigarette sales lead to citations.

The program aims to make sure tobacco taxes are properly paid and to keep illegal cigarettes out of the hands of children.

"Cheap, readily available and illegally sold cigarettes make it easier for our children to start and harder to quit," states the program's website, checkthestamps.org.

Cigarettes can be legally sold only to people 18 and older in packs or cartons that have the proper state and county stamps affixed. Selling individual loose cigarettes, packs that are missing stamps, and selling to people younger than 18 are all illegal.

The city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection handles enforcement of illegal retail sales; the police handle illegal street sales.

Cook County implemented a program similar to the city's reward program in September 2011. Rewards from Cook County range from $250-$1,000 for tips about illegal tobacco sales that lead to citation and payment of a fine.

Ken Harris, deputy director of the county Department of Revenue, said he did not know the city had planned to implement a similar reward program until the program was made public Monday.

When asked whether a tipster could theoretically get rewarded by both the city and the county, county Department of Revenue Director Zahra Ali declined to comment until she knew more about the city's program.

Brian Richardson, a spokesman for Chicago's Department of Public Health, said the city was aware of the county program, but wasn't sure that Chicago residents were.

"More importantly our goal is to help remove illegal cigarettes from the city of Chicago, and we're working on a number of projects in order to do that," he said.

Richardson said receiving a reward from the county would not prohibit a tipster from also receiving a reward from the city.

"I would assume that a tipster could be rewarded twice. If you submit a report to the city of Chicago about a violation that's occurring in the city of Chicago, we will follow up with an investigation," Richardson said. "I would recommend … a resident report illegal sales, regardless of where they occur, to the proper authorities."

Ervin said he was not familiar with the county's program, but said if tipsters could get rewarded twice, "god bless them."

CIGARETTE TAXES

Cigarette taxes in Chicago are the highest in the country, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Here's how taxes per pack break down. M.C.

$1.01 federal

+ $1.98 Illinois

+ $3 Cook County

+ $1.18 Chicago

= $7.17 Total

BY THE NUMBERS

$1,000 – Minimum fine imposed for cigarette violations in Chicago, according to the Chicago municipal code

$100 – The city's reward for tips on illegal tobacco sales that lead to conviction

$250-$1,000 – The county's reward for tips on illegal tobacco sales that lead to conviction and payment of a fine

More than 2,500 – The amount of tips the county has received to date regarding illegal tobacco sales

33 – The number of tipsters who have been rewarded through the county's program

$11,500 – The approximate amount of reward money the county has paid to those tipsters