Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th) | File

A bill cosponsored by state Representatives La Shawn K. Ford (8th) and Camille Y. Lilly (78th) that would effectively decriminalize the sale of loose cigarettes passed the Illinois House of Representatives last week with 60 votes and is now headed to the Senate for consideration.

Illinois House Bill 4212 would make the illegal sale of loose cigarettes to individuals over 18 years old a petty offense punishable by a fine of up to $50 that can be paid without the offender appearing in court. If the measure passes, it won’t apply to cases where offenders have sold cigarettes to minors under 18 years old.

In a recent interview, Ford said he was confident that the bill would pass the senate, even though the measure passed the House by a small margin. He said the bill could become law by mid-May if the governor doesn’t veto it.

“I know without a doubt that anytime you give the system the opportunity to criminalize someone, certain people will be affected by it,” he said. “There’s no reason to have a system that allows you to be incarcerated over a petty offense like selling cigarettes. It’s more dangerous to run a red light than to sell a cigarette, but if you run a red light all you get is a ticket.”

Ford, who noted that he was motivated to introduce the bill after the 2014 death of Eric Garner — the New York man who died at the hands of police officers who had accosted him for selling loose cigarettes — said the bill’s passage was smoothened by his relationships with Republican lawmakers like Rep. Jeanne M. Ives (42nd), who said that she was confident that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner would not veto the bill if it came across his desk.

“It would still be illegal to sell a loose cigarette and tobacco of any sort under age 18. The only thing he’s doing is taking it from a criminal offense to a fine. I don’t think we should be criminalizing folk for doing something of this nature,” said Ives in a recent interview.

“We already have a problem of too many folk having to go through the court system,” she said. “It clogs up the court. There are bills in the House that seek to decriminalize marijuana, and yet, we want to criminalize something like this. The two are just incongruent with each other.”

Ford’s bill runs counter to an ordinance supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that would raise Chicago’s smoking age to 21 years old and increase the tax on tobacco products. That legislation, which also included provisions to increase the penalties for selling loose cigarettes, passed last month by a vote of 35 to 10.

West Side Aldermen Jason Ervin (28th) and Chris Taliaferro (37th) voted against the measure, while Aldermen Michael Scott, Jr. (24th) and Emma Mitts (37th) voted in favor of it.

With the passage of the ordinance, first-time offenders caught selling loose cigarettes in Chicago now face fines of $5,000 and repeat offenders face fines of $10,000 — a doubling of the fines that were previously in place. Offenders could now also face up to six months in jail.

Aldermen like Taliaferro and Ervin, who opposed the measure, have argued that the penalties will disproportionately affect poor, African American residents on the South and West Sides who are more likely to be involved the illicit loose cigarette trade. They’ve also argued that the law could have the unintended effect of strengthening the black market for illegal cigarettes and hurting legitimate small businesses that sale cigarettes legally.

“We have establishments in Austin that sell cigarettes as part of their business, so we lose business that way and it promotes the sale off loose cigarettes in the black community,” said Taliaferro, referencing the new city ordinance.

“And I don’t know that the measure will curb underage smoking, especially when you can go to the suburb right next door to my ward and legally purchase them. I don’t believe people should be going to jail for selling loose cigarettes.”

Taliaferro deferred commenting on Ford’s bill until he got more information on it. When asked how the bill, if it becomes law, would affect the city’s new ordinance, Ford suggested that the state law would likely overrule the city law. Ives, however, noted that Chicago’s home rule authority may exempt it from the statewide legislation.

“I don’t know if the city’s home rule authority extends to this or not,” she said. “In order to supersede the city’s home rule, Ford’s bill would’ve needed more votes. Ultimately, this may be something that the courts will have to settle.”

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