In an attempt to dismiss claims that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to increase taxes on tobacco products is a regressive policy that would hurt small businesses and fuel black market sales of loose cigarettes, particularly in communities of color, a coalition of African American doctors and religious leaders assembled at a South Side hospital yesterday to counter that African American communities would reap the most benefits.

“African Americans are bearing the brunt of big tobacco’s relentless marketing and our community must take a stand for the health of our young people, ” said Dr. Javette Orgain with the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians. “I’m disappointed when business owners and aldermen say that selling tobacco is good business, and therefore good for their ward. I say no, we should not take pride in building an economy including products that are addictive and harmful.”

Yesterday’s press conference at Mercy Hospital in Bronzeville was the latest salvo in the ongoing debate over the Mayor’s plan to raise the city’s smoking age to 21, impose new taxes on tobacco products like cigars, cigarillos, and chewing tobacco, as well as prohibit the use of coupons or promotional sales of tobacco.  

It was an effort by proponents to squash claims by business interests and aldermen who say the Mayor’s plan is about imposing burdensome taxes, not public health. That message got lost at a day long City Council committee meeting held last month, where all anyone wanted to talk about was the unencumbered and lucrative sale of loose cigarettes. Yesterday, proponents took the public health angle a step further, framing it as an issue that specifically impacts black youths more than any other group.

“Our youth actually deserve good health, and they deserve to be free of addictive substances….substances that will indeed kill them,” urged Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, pastor of Progressive Community Church in Bronzeville, as he characterized the fight to curb smoking among youths a “moral imperative,” not a political or socio-economic issue.

“Everywhere I go I turn on the radio and I hear [reports] of who died the night before, who was murdered, either at the hands, sometimes of the police, unfortunately, or other African American men. But that pales in comparison to the number of African Americans who die every year from tobacco related diseases,” said Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Leadership Council. According to statistics provided by the council, in Chicago, African Americans’ rate of death from stroke is 61% higher than whites, and their rate of death from heart disease is 23% higher.

Leadership Council members argued that fighting “Big Tobacco” in predominantly lower-income, minority communities is on par with addressing other social justice and economic issues.

“We have to deal with these things, we have to multi-task, we can’t wait and deal with police brutality… we can’t wait to deal with the blight… and say one day say we’re going to deal with tobacco. We have to deal with those things at the same time, because that is our number one killer,” McGruder added, saying premature deaths of parents and grandparents who were lifelong smokers are detrimental to establishing stable homes in minority communities.

McGruder also made a point to address the issue of loosies. Invoking Eric Garner, who suffocated to death when a New York City Police officer attempted to restrain and handcuff him for illegally selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island, McGruder said, “We were all appalled… but that’s a symptom of a problem, not the cause of a problem, and there are many cases of men being killed by the police.”

Pushing the argument that this ordinance is geared specifically toward curing youth smoking, Dr. Orgain ended the event to respond to a common refrain used by opponents who say that higher prices won’t curb sales because smokers can buy cheaper products in the suburbs or Indiana.

“It’s not typical for youth to cross the borders to [buy] tobacco products. Mostly adults. So our target, particularly as we speak today, are youths. And so if we can stop that, in regards to our legislation, I think we’ll do a good job.”