As the tobacco industry transitions into e-cigarettes, McConnell transitions from tobacco advocate into health advocate

Sen. Mitch McConnell, right, endorsed making 21 the legal age for tobacco products at the Foundation for
a Healthy Kentucky on April 18 with CEO Ben Chandler, state Rep. Kim Moser of Taylor Mill and state Sen. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville, left.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is sponsoring a bill to raise from 18 to 21 the legal age for buying tobacco products, a move he says is one of “my highest priorities.” The “T-21” bill is also a priority of the tobacco industry, which is moving intoelectronic cigarettes and wants a higher legal age to reduce pressure for youth-oriented regulations, such as limits on flavorings of vapor products.

In researching a package of reports on the senator, National Public Radiolooked into his long relationship with the industry and found that he “repeatedly cast doubt on the health consequences of smoking, repeated industry talking points word-for-word, attacked federal regulators at the industry’s request and opposed bipartisan tobacco regulations going back decades,” NPR producer Tom Dreisbach reports.

That contrasts with McConnell’s recent announcement of his T-21 bill, in which he said, “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 noted, “I might seem like an unusual candidate to lead this charge.”

Driesbach adds that the industry “has provided McConnell with millions of dollars in speaking fees, personal gifts, campaign contributions and charitable donations to the McConnell Center [at the University of Louisville], which is home to his personal and professional archives.”

Another sort of of archive is the primary source for the NPR report. “The disclosure of millions of once-secret tobacco industry documents — which are now readily searchable online — has opened a window into McConnell’s interactions with tobacco executives and lobbyists,” Driesbach notes. “Many of the records were first reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader, as part of a yearlong investigation into McConnell” in 2006 by reporter John Cheves.

The American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society Action Network favor McConnell’s bill, but other groups object to a provision requiring each state to raise its legal tobacco age to 21 in order to keep getting federal grants for substance-abuse prevention. “It is highly likely that this provision will be used by the tobacco companies to pass laws that weaken state and local efforts to reduce tobacco use,” says the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids.

“It’s a Jedi mind trick,” Sharon Eubanks told Driesbach. Eubanks “led the Justice Department‘s landmark racketeering case against the industry,” he notes. “E-cigarette companies want to avoid liability for the youth vaping epidemic, says Eubanks.”

McConnell is “covering for them,” said Dr. David Kessler, who as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in the mid-1990s tried to regulate nicotine as a drug, “Still, whatever the motivation, Kessler says he welcomes increasing the tobacco age to 21,” Driesbach reports.

Georgeanna Sullivan, a deputy press secretary for McConnell, told NPR, “No one has done more to help transition Kentucky and our nation past tobacco culture than Senator McConnell.” She noted that McConnell helped engineer the repeal of federal production limits and price supports for tobacco in 2004, which led to a huge decrease in tobacco farmers’ numbers and political clout.

In an interview for the package of reports, McConnell said the industry got much help from both Republicans and Democrats in Kentucky. “There was nobody not fighting for tobacco in Kentucky in that era,” he said. “Nobody.”

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