U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell said he will introduce a bill raising the minimum age to buy cigarettes, vaping devices and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 across the country.
During a news conference in Louisville Thursday, McConnell said he will introduce the legislation in May.
“By raising the age you could legally purchase to 21, tobacco won’t be in most high schools, presenting fewer opportunities for children to get their hands on vaping devices,” McConnell said.
Studies have shown that raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 would have a dramatic effect on the number of teens who smoke or use e-cigarettes. Ben Chandler, president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said that’s because most teens under age 18 get the vaping pens and cigarettes from older friends.
“Sixteen- and 17-year-olds don’t typically hang with those that are 21 and older,” Chandler said. “So tobacco 21 laws make it, without question, harder for them to access tobacco.”
McConnell’s announcement follows failed attempts in multiple states to raise the tobacco age, including in Indiana and Kentucky. Earlier this week two U.S. House members — Democratic Representatives Frank Pallone from New Jersey and Donna Shalala from Florida — introduced a similar bill to raise the smoking age.
McConnell said he’s hopeful that he’ll be successful in passing the bill as the leader of the Senate.
“As you well know, I’m in a particularly good position to enact legislation,” McConnell said. “And this is going to be a top priority that I’ll be working on now.”
Eleven states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Maine, Utah and Virginia – have raised the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21, along with at least 450 localities, including Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
Meanwhile, 8.1 percent of teens smoked cigarettes in 2018. But 20.8 percent used e-cigarettes, or vaping pens. In Kentucky, a little more than 14 percent of Kentucky high school students reported smoking cigarettes in 2017, while about the same percentage reported vaping, which is similar to e-cigarettes.
Juul Labs controls about 70 percent of the e-cigarette market. In a statement Thursday, CEO Kevin Burns applauded McConnell’s proposal.
“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 and have been actively supporting legislation to do this at the federal level and in states across the country. JUUL Labs is committed to eliminating combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in the world and to accomplish that goal, we must restrict youth usage of vapor products. 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. That is why we will continue to work with lawmakers across the country to enact these effective policies.”
Louisville Senator Julie Raque Adams said she’s also supportive of McConnell’s effort. She has previously sponsored tobacco-related bills in the Kentucky legislature. At Thursday’s press conference, Raque Adams shared a story about her own sons using vaping products without knowing that the products contained nicotine. She said she found out after her sons had physical exams.
“So I sat them down and I said, ‘guys, why do you all have nicotine in your system?’ And they said, ‘We don’t smoke. We don’t smoke mom.’ They said, ‘all we’ve done is vape,’” Adams said. “Even my own kids didn’t understand that there was nicotine and an addiction in that vein.”
Studies have shown teens who start vaping are more likely to smoke cigarettes later. In addition, there is emerging research that shows vaping can lead to a condition known as popcorn lung, and other respiratory illnesses.
“When teens vape at 15 that could be taking the first step toward serious health problems throughout their entire lives,” McConnell said.
This story has been updated.