Health

Kentucky health groups will push to raise the tobacco sales age to 21 and create a tax on e-cigarettes and vapes in the upcoming 2020 state legislative session.

The Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow wants a Kentucky law that would raise the age for the sale of tobacco products — including e-cigarettes — to 21. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell has introduced a bill that would raise the age nationally, but Coalition President Ben Chandler said Kentucky should pass its own law.

“We want to try to reduce the use of vapes, and one of the ways to reduce them is not have them be available to underage youth,” Chandler said. “Not as many 17-or 16-year-olds hang out with 21-year-olds as they do 18-year-olds. So we know that that would reduce the usage and the availability of those products.”

There’s been a surge in teens using vape pens. According to the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, about 14 percent of Kentucky high school students used e-cigarettes or vaping in 2017. That was up to more than 20 percent the following year. And for years, health-related groups have pushed to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco.

And recently, even big tobacco and vaping companies have also supported similar legislation. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have raised the legal age to buy tobacco and vaping products to 21. But these laws often include exemptions that nullify stricter local ordinances to ban smoking in workplaces or advertising in local media, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, USA Today and the Arizona Republic.

The Coalition For a Smoke-Free Tomorrow’s vision of the Tobacco 21 policy in Kentucky, however, states that the best laws would still allow local ordinances that go beyond state law.

A March 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine estimated that raising the national age of sale to age 21 would decrease smoking by 12 percent nationwide and prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

Another priority of the Coalition’s is to put a tax on e-cigarettes and vaping products in the same way cigarettes are taxed. Consumers currently don’t pay a tax on e-cigs or vaping devices. Last year the tax on cigarettes in Kentucky went up to $1.10, a 50 cent increase. Chandler said the Coalition would like to see that increased again, but it’s a lower priority than a tax on vape pens.

“We think that the tax on vapes ought to mirror the tax on tobacco products,” Chandler said.

Prevention Funding

The Coalition also wants to increase the amount allocated to tobacco prevention and to help people quit smoking. Last year, $3.8 million was appropriated to go toward these efforts – in 2020 the Coalition will push for $10 million.

“We took in a little bit over $500 million in tobacco-related revenues, much of that being either [from] the tobacco tax, or tobacco settlement money,” Chandler said. “And yet out of that over $500 million dollars, less than $4 million was budgeted for prevention. It’s just not nearly enough.”

Back in December, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky – a member of the Coalition – said vape flavors should be banned. However, the Coalition won’t push for a ban on flavors in e-cigarettes this year. These flavors were the recent subject of federal regulators, who cited evidence that vape manufacturer’s target young people with vape pens with flavors.

“These are these are money makers, and the tobacco industry is not interested in losing their opportunity to sell flavored products,” Chandler said. “The legislature listens to tobacco companies. It would suit us fine to attack on the flavor issue, but we’re trying to do what’s doable.”

The second highest lobbying spender during the first two months of the 2018 Kentucky legislative session was Altria, the parent company of tobacco company Philip Morris. The company spent $69,641. Chandler said it is possible Tobacco 21 legislation could include bans on specific flavors like bubble gum or cotton candy. 

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.