Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced bipartisan legislation on Monday to raise the federal minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 in a move to curtail the growing use of e-cigarettes and tobacco products by teenagers.
The legislation, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., comes as the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products has skyrocketed among minors across the country. While e-cigarettes - like the popular Juul - do not contain tobacco, they do have the addictive substance nicotine and are marketed in a variety of flavors that critics say are meant to appeal to young people.
“We’re in the middle of a national health epidemic,” McConnell said during a speech on the Senate floor. “Youth vaping is a public health crisis.”
Both McConnell and Kaine represent states that have a long history with tobacco growing – something the Senate majority leader acknowledged when introducing the legislation.
“I might seem like an unusual candidate to introduce this legislation,” he said before delving into an abridged history of tobacco’s history in the U.S. from the Native Americans and George Washington to the recent transition from tobacco farming to hemp farming in Kentucky. “For many in Kentucky, tobacco made the American Dream possible.”
He added that the legislation is not meant to ban tobacco cultivation nor to prevent adults who choose to use tobacco from obtaining the products, but that he has heard from constituents who worry about their children using e-cigarettes and other products.
“Kentucky farmers don’t want their children to get hooked on tobacco products in middle school,” McConnell said.
Kentucky has had among the highest cancer rates in the country, even as tobacco production has fallen in the state in recent year.
Currently 14 states and the District of Columbia have made 21 the legal age to buy tobacco products, with eight states this passing their own legislation.
Besides McConnell and Kaine, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has also been a major supporter for the Tobacco 21 movement.
“Tobacco is costing our nation hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year,” Romney wrote in a piece published in the Deseret News and co-authored by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. “As a society, we have a collective responsibility to keep these harmful tobacco products out of our children’s hands and protect them from a lifetime of addiction and health risks.”
A number of leaders in tobacco and vaping industries have also publicly come out in support of raising the minimum age to 21 - partly in an effort to distance themselves from criticism that they are marketing their products to children. Altria, Juul and R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company have all voiced their support for McConnell’s legislation.
“We commend Senator McConnell for announcing this legislation as we strongly support raising the purchasing age for all tobacco products, including vapor products, to 21,” Kevin Burns, chief executive of Juul, told the New York Times. “Tobacco 21 laws fight one of the largest contributors to this problem — sharing by legal-age peers — and they have been shown to dramatically reduce youth usage rates.”
Juul, which accounts for about 68 percent of the e-cigarettes market and is valued at $15 billion, has taken the most criticism from opponents of vaping. Its e-cigarette is shaped like a log USB stick and comes in flavors such as mango and fruit that critics say are meant to appeal to children.
The company last week was hit with a lawsuit from North Carolina Attorney General Joshua Stein, who argues the company is “deceptively downplaying the potency and danger of the nicotine” and targeting children with its advertising.
“Addicting a new generation of teenagers is unacceptable, illegal and that’s why I’m taking action,” Stein told The Washington Post. “This is about a company that is selling its product predominantly to [youth]. There has to be some limitation on the way they do business.”