McConnell files bill to raise legal age to buy tobacco products to 21, with some provisions Kentucky health advocates wanted

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks tobacco.

By Melissa Patrick and Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today introduced his promised bill to raise to 21 from 18 the legal age to buy tobacco products in the United States, in response to what he called a public-health epidemic of electronic-cigarette use by teenagers.

Federal law does not establish a penalty for violating the current age limit of 18, but leaves enforcement up to the states and makes certain federal grants dependent upon enforcement.The McConnell-Kaine bill would leave that system in place. Laws in Kentucky and many other states have penalties for under-age youth who buy, possess or use tobacco products.”Youth vaping is a public health crisis,” McConnell said during a floor speech to introduce the bill. “It’s our responsibility as parents and public servants to do everything we can to keep these harmful products out of high schools and out of youth culture. We need to put the national age of purchase at 21.”

Most adults who smoke start before they turn 21, so increasing the tobacco age to 21 will keep youth from starting, save lives and improve public health, says the Institute of Medicine. McConnell said he would make enacting the bill one of his highest priorities.

McConnell’s co-sponsor is Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “As senators from two states with a long history of tobacco production and consumption, [they] have seen this phenomenon firsthand, and heard the compelling stories from concerned constituents throughout their states,” said a short explanation of the bill and the reasons for it. The bill is called the Tobacco-Free Youth Act.

McConnell gave a detailed history of how tobacco helped shape the nation and Kentucky. He said the state had almost 30,000 tobacco farmers when he helped end the federal tobacco program in 2004, but now has only 2,600.

“For many in Kentucky, tobacco made the American dream possible,” he said, but also talked about the negative impact tobacco has had on Kentuckians’ health. The state leads the nation in cancer and the percentage of cancers tied directly to smoking. “Our state once grew tobacco like none other — and now we’re being hit by the health consequences of tobacco use like none other,” he said. “We’re proud of our past, we’re proud of who we are, but Kentucky farmers don’t want their children to get hooked on tobacco products while they’re in middle school or high school anymore than any parent anywhere wants that to happen. . . . The health of our children, literally, is at stake.”

According to the Kentucky Incentives for Prevention survey, teen use of electronic cigarettes in Kentucky nearly doubled from 2016 to 2018. The survey found that 26.7% of the state’s high-school seniors reported using e-cigarettes in the 30 days before they were surveyed in 2018, up from 12.2% in 2016. Among 10th graders, it increased to 23.2% from 11.3%; eighth graders jumped to 14.2% from 7.3%; and sixth-grader use increased to 4.2% from 2.3%.

McConnell pointed to a nationwide survey that found the use of tobacco products increased by nearly 40% between 2017 and 2018, driven almost entirely by vaping. “The brain is still developing at this young age. When teenagers use tobacco, they’re quite literally altering their brain chemistry and making it more susceptible to addiction,” he said.

Enforcement is up to the states

Advocates will have to work with state legislators to remove those laws, said Bonnie Hackbarth, vice president for communications at the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which has endorsed McConnell’s bill.

“Our interest was to make sure that there was nothing in the federal bill to impose penalties on the actual purchaser, but to rather put those penalties on the retailers where they should be and that is the way the bill is written,” Hackbarth said. “That would be our goal, that the penalties would be on retailers and not the purchasers.”

Foundation President and CEO Ben Chandler said in a news release, “Since Sen. McConnell stood in our offices just last month and announced plans to file this bill, new data has come out showing that youth e-cigarette use in Kentucky doubled over the past two years. We’re gratified that the provisions we sought to help reduce this explosion in youth vaping and other tobacco use have been included in the bill: It covers all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes as well as heated products; it prohibits sales to everyone under age 21, with no military exemption; it puts responsibility for compliance where it should be – on retailers, and it preserves the right of states to enact stricter laws.”

Chandler added, “We urge Congress to pass this bipartisan bill quickly and states to begin getting their own T21 bills in order. Every extra day it takes to put this important legislation into effect is an opportunity for thousands more kids to access a tobacco product that can damage their developing brains now and cause debilitating health issues throughout their lives.”

The bill has already received the support of several organizations, but others are being more cautious before they give it their approval.

“Increasing the minimum sale age for all tobacco products to 21 offers a common-sense way to keep harmful tobacco products out of reach of our kids and prevent life-long addictions to nicotine,” Dr. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in a release. “We urge Congress to support this bipartisan bill and for our leaders in Frankfort to begin work aligning state law to protect more youth from the lasting harms of tobacco use.”

Some advocates want more

The American Lung Association also supports the bill, though it calls for more action, including a ban on flavored tobacco products, restricting online sales of the products and increasing funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Office on Smoking and Health.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said it was still evaluating the bill to make sure it is strong enough, including strong enforcement penalties on retailers, no exemptions and no “special interest provisions that block other policies needed to protect kids and public health, such as prohibitions on flavored tobacco products.”

With the support of McConnell and Kaine, the bill is expected to have little trouble in the Senate, but its House prospects “are unclear,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “House Democratic aides said they are still reviewing it, though they pointed to more expansive legislation introduced in the House that would also restrict flavored e-cigarettes and regulate marketing to young people, among other measures, in addition to raising the age for purchasing tobacco. Legislation that takes similar measures—but doesn’t raise the purchasing age—has received bipartisan support in the Senate.”

McConnell’s bill addresses some of the advocates’ concerns. It does not exempt people in the military, as he originally said it would, and it would allow states to pass stronger tobacco laws.

McConnell told Deborah Yetter of the Louisville Courier Journal that he was aware of health advocates’ concerns that tobacco companies support the legislation only because it could shield them from more aggressive enforcement and a possible ban on flavorings.

“Just the fact that they’re for it doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea,” he said. “This is just a floor, not a ceiling. I don’t think it relieves them of any of the battles they’re going to have to fight at the state and local levels in the future.”

A bill to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products in Kentucky failed in the last session of the legislature, after opponents said it would hurt the tobacco industry. The bill, and similar legislation passed in Virginia and 13 other states, is backed by Virginia-based Altria Group, the nation’s largest cigarette maker. Altria recently bought 35% of Juul Labs, maker of the most popular e-cigarette.

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