Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Monday introduced legislation to raise the age for buying tobacco to 21 — now a bipartisan effort that addresses some of the criticism public health groups had of an earlier proposal they saw as too industry-friendly.
McConnell‘s bill is now joined by Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, who has backed legislation to ban indoor smoking and some flavored products in the past. The version released would raise the age to 21 for everyone, backtracking on McConnell’s April promise to exempt “men and women who served in uniform.” Nor does his Tobacco-Free Youth Act block states from taking more stringent steps on tobacco, including moves to address the growing teen vaping epidemic.
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Several leading public health groups, including the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Academy of Pediatrics came out in cautious support, applauding the McConnell measure but urging lawmakers not to add carve-outs or special provisions for the industry. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids said it was still evaluating the proposal.
Most of the anti-tobacco groups favor raising the age, but want other steps to curb tobacco use, particularly among youth.
“We urge strong bipartisan support for [the McConnell legislation] as written, and we call on lawmakers to reject any effort to add language that would weaken its impact or benefit tobacco companies,” said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown.
McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday that he will make enacting the bill one of his highest priorities. “This is not a zero sum choice between farmers and public health. We can support both, we need to support both,” he said. Several House lawmakers are also backing new anti-smoking measures.
Both McConnell and Kaine hail from states with robust tobacco industries. McConnell noted that Kentucky has the highest cancer rates in the country, including the highest rates of smoking-related cancer.
“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, adding that an entirely new public health epidemic has risen through teen vaping as well.
Anti-smoking advocates have fought some states’ T21 — the shorthand for Tobacco at 21 — bills that they say include tobacco industry-backed provisions to weaken enforcement or prohibit local moves to raise taxes and ban flavored cigarettes or other tobacco products that may appeal to teens.
The bill also encompasses all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, a provision that the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky declared a win after pushing for e-cigarette regulations in a meeting with McConnell last month.
“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,” said Foundation president and CEO Ben Chandler.
Fourteen states, the District of Columbia and hundreds of cities have already raised the tobacco sales age to 21.
Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.