Chicago Health Commissioner Describes How Community Engagement Helped Advance Rigorous Tobacco Control Policies

cigarette1Interview by Ian Goldstein, Web and New Media Specialist, NACCHO

NACCHO honored the exceptional achievements of local health departments (LHDs) and local health officials at the 2014 NACCHO Annual Conference, held July 8–10 in Atlanta. NACCHO’s LHD of the Year Award recognizes and honors outstanding accomplishment of LHDs across the country for their innovation, creativity, and impact on communities. The following winners were categorized by size of jurisdiction and recognized for accomplishments in outstanding internal and external policy: Small Jurisdiction: Macon County Public Health Center (Franklin, NC); Medium Jurisdiction: Whatcom County Health Department (Bellingham, WA); and Large Jurisdiction: Chicago Department of Public Health (Chicago, IL).

The following is an excerpt from a recent NACCHO podcast featuring an interview with Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair, who spoke about his health department’s winning tobacco control policies.


NACCHO: What made you and your colleagues decide to apply for the LHD of the Year Award?

Choucair: Well, this past year has been a remarkable time for the Chicago Department of Public Health in tobacco control for the City of Chicago and together with all of our partners. Because of all of the work that has happened over the last year, we wanted to share the work that we’ve done with other health departments and we’re really honored and humbled to receive the Local Health Department of the Year Award.

NACCHO: Your LHD was able to implement a number of tobacco control policies. 

Choucair: A lot of tobacco policies that we’ve advanced this year in Chicago have been really cutting-edge work. In November, for example, we passed a new tobacco tax. Now we have the highest combined local, state, and federal tobacco tax in the nation and we know this is a life-saving measure. Today,  every pack of cigarettes in Chicago is taxed $7.17 in combined taxes. [The most recent measure] added 50 cents.

We’ve also passed a flavored tobacco ordinance that […] restricts the sale of tobacco including menthol within 500 feet of schools, which makes us the first and only jurisdiction in the country to restrict the sale of menthol cigarettes around schools. Also, just recently we passed an ordinance that regulates e-cigarettes just like regular tobacco products, which also makes us one of the very first big cities in the country to advance that type of ordinance.

NACCHO: What were the challenges to implementing these policies, especially with something like menthol cigarettes, which have been around for so long?

Choucair: Mayor Emmanuel asked us to engage the community in trying to identify what we could do about menthol cigarettes. What the board of health in Chicago did was host a series of town hall meetings to engage the community to see what kind of policy suggestions or intervention suggestions they had to address menthol cigarettes.

We know that menthol cigarettes are proven “starter products” for youth. We know that over 70% of black kids who smoke smoke menthol cigarettes. We know that over 70% of LGBT youth who smoke smoke menthol cigarettes. Over half of Hispanic kids who smoke smoke menthol cigarettes. Honestly, Big Tobacco is targeting our minority communities with menthol cigarettes with specific marketing and by lowering prices in African-American communities to get people addicted to this deadly product.

So by engaging the community, by engaging an amazing group of partners in Chicago and nationally, including the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council,  we were able to advance this ordinance that restricts the sale of flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes, within 500 feet of schools.


Listen to the rest of the interview with Dr. Choucair about his community’s response to the ordinance and his advice to other LHDs that are looking to implement similar policies (start at the 3:55 mark) at

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