It's less expensive to buy loose tobacco and paper and stick it in a machine that turns out cigarettes en masse in a new way to roll your own.
The tobacco tax is backed by an odd coalition of anti-smoking lawmakers, cancer-fighting organizations, convenience store owners and major cigarette manufacturers. All have their reasons to join Gov.Pat Quinn's administration in trying to snuff out the fad.
Health advocates fear cheaper cigarettes will lead to more smokers and higher cancer rates. Tobacco companies don't want to lose market share on cigarettes, same as convenience store owners. And the state thinks it's being cheated out of revenue.
The push is unpopular with the roll-your-own machine makers and couples like the Presleys, who use their savings to help pay their mortgage and cellphone bill.
"I don't understand why they can't just leave us alone," Nicki Presley said.
Two years ago, state and federal officials moved to level the playing field. The Illinois Department of Revenue said cigarettes made in the rented machines — not by the old-fashioned handmade method — should be taxed at the same rate as prepackaged cigarettes made by tobacco giants. But that's not what is happening in stores throughout the state, so lawmakers are looking to take legislative action.
Politicians in at least 12 other states have taken up the roll-your-own tax issue, and a handful have put new laws on the books reflecting Illinois' concerns.
A federal appeals court also is expected to rule soon on whether roll-your-own vendors, mostly local stores that rent the cigarette machines to customers, are manufacturers. If so, that would make them subject to federal cigarette tax and licensing requirements and buttress Illinois' case to take action.
As the Senate pushes to make roll-your-own cigarettes more expensive, Quinn is lobbying lawmakers to increase the state's 98-cents-per-pack cigarette tax by $1 to help fund the Medicaid program. The tax, coupled with federal matching funds, would bring in $675 million, Quinn said.
The $1 cigarette tax hike also would be applied to products made with in-store machines if the legislation becomes law.
As it stands now, the state cigarette tax alone is $9.80 per carton. The tax for loose tobacco averages $1.80 for a similar amount. Tack on the city and county taxes, and the price for a carton of cigarettes quickly rises, explaining why roll-your-own packs can ring up at half the cost.
Store owners who have invested in the roll-your-own machines are unhappy with developments in Cook County and now potentially statewide.
"Oh boy. For sure we're going to close when that happens. Put a fork in it. It's over," said J.J. Shamoon, who owns Smokes for Less in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood.
"People will drive an extra five miles to save 3 cents on a gallon of gas," said Corey Fitze, director of government relations for NACS, formerly known as the National Association of Convenience Stores. He worries that they'll drive a lot farther to save $25 on a carton of cigarettes.
"It's very hard to run a mainstream business if you don't know what your tax bill is going to be five years from now," Fitze added.