McConnell and electronic-cigarette firms’ bill to raise legal age to buy tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21 awaits president’s signature

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Legislation to raise the nationwide legal age to buy tobacco produces, including electronic cigarettes, from 18 to 21 passed Congress as part of the year-end spending bill and went to President Donald Trump for his expected signature. It passed the House Dec. 17 and the Senate Dec. 19.

“I’m proud the Senate approved legislation today including our Tobacco-Free Youth Act to help address this urgent crisis and keep these dangerous products away from our children,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who engineered the move, said in a news release.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, who co-sponsored the measure, called its passage an “enormous victory for the health of our young people” and said in addition to reducing youth tobacco use, it would save 223,000 lives.

“This is one of many steps we should take to tackle the youth e-cigarette epidemic that touches every corner of our nation,” Kaine said in a news release.

More than 6 million U.S. middle and high school students are current users of tobacco products, and 5.3 million of them, or 85 percent, are using e-cigarettes, according to the latest annual National Youth Tobacco Survey.

The latest data for e-cigarette use by Kentucky teens, from 2018, shows e-cig use had nearly doubled since 2016, with more than one in four high-school seniors and one out of seven eighth-graders reporting they used the devices, the Kentucky Incentives for Prevention study found.

“The dangers of nicotine on young people’s development—especially on their brains and lungs—can inflict life-long damage. Raising the minimum tobacco purchase age to 21 will help keep these harmful products away from our kids, and I can’t thank Senator McConnell enough for his vision and leadership for our children’s future,” state Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, chair of the state House Health and Welfare Committee, said in McConnell’s release.

In a separate release issued earlier this week,  Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, praised McConnell’s work. He added that the state legislature, which convenes Jan. 7, will need to change state law to comply with the federal statute. Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, has prefiled a bill to raise Kentucky’s legal age to 21 from 18.

“This bill is a critical step toward reversing the skyrocketing rates of youth vaping nationwide and in Kentucky,” Chandler said. “We encourage the Kentucky legislature to demonstrate similar leadership in passing Sen. Alvarado’s Tobacco 21 bill quickly this coming year.”

similar bill was introduced in the last legislative session, but tobacco-friendly senators blocked it.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, also praised the legislation.

“Kentucky Youth Advocates thanks Leader McConnell for leading the way in Congress on this critical issue to help keep Kentucky kids—and kids across the nation—healthier and prevent life-long addiction to nicotine,” Brooks said in a statement.

Already, 19 states have raised the tobacco age to 21, along with Washington, DC and over 530 localities, although the strength of their laws vary substantially, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids. E-cigarette companies see the law as a way to limit other forms of regulation aimed at limiting smoking and e-cig use by teenagers.

In the latest Kentucky Health Issues Poll, six in 10 Kentuckians said they would support increasing the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, with majorities in each political party.

In addition to Alvarado’s bill, Kentucky lawmakers have pre-filed several other bills to thwart the surge in teen use of e-cigs, including one to ban the sale of flavored e-cigs; one to impose registration and licensing requirements to sell them; and one to tax them at the same rate as traditional cigarettes.

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