Inside Chicago’s war on illegal cigarettes

WGN Investigates
Data pix.

CHICAGO — It may not get much attention, with all eyes on legal cannabis sales, but the black market for tobacco is booming.

WGN Investigates went along as the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection searched for illegal cigarettes in stores throughout Chicago.

City officials say they see many of the same shops busted for selling loose cigarettes or unstamped packs of cigarettes. But with taxes on tobacco so high, many owners are willing to take the risk. The profit margins can be that good.

City crews tells WGN they’ve found illegal cigarettes hidden inside door panels, electrical outlets and more. Sellers hide the packs to avoid detection. If shop owners are busted, the packs are confiscated and fines starting at $2,000 are levied.

The Tax Foundation estimates that 17% of the cigarettes sold in Illinois were bought in other states, where taxes are lower. Packs of cigarettes sold legally in Chicago contain a specific tax stamp, a sign that all the taxes have been paid.

Often, city inspectors will find hidden packs with tax stamps from other states.

Last year, the city issued $838,000 worth of fines for illegal tobacco sales.

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