McConnell, Kaine introduce bill to raise tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21

McConnell, Kaine introduce bill to raise tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21
© Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic challenger to Joni Ernst releases ad depicting her as firing gun at him Senate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days The case for censuring, and not impeaching, Donald Trump MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael Kaine'Granite Express' flight to take staffers, journalists to NH after Iowa caucuses Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Senate panel approves Trump FDA pick | Biden downplays Dem enthusiasm around 'Medicare for All' | Trump officials unveil program for free HIV prevention drugs for uninsured Trump's FDA nominee approved by Senate panel MORE (D-Va.) introduced legislation Monday to raise the tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21. 

McConnell, who hails from one of the biggest tobacco producing states, said he's proud of Kentucky's history, but that the purchasing age must be increased amid record high youth vaping rates. 

"We're proud of our past, and we're proud of who we are, but Kentucky farmers don't want their children to get hooked on tobacco products while they're in middle or high school any more than any parents anywhere want that to happen," McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday. 

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"This is not a zero-sum choice between farmers and public health. We can support both, we need to support both, but the health of our children is at stake." 

The legislation follows similar moves in 14 other states and by companies like Walmart and Rite Aid.

Public health groups support increasing the tobacco purchasing age to 21, but believe more must be done to curb youth vaping rates, including banning the sale of flavored products. 

Tobacco and e-cigarette companies like Altria and Juul have jumped on the push for a higher purchasing age as youth vaping rates rise, but public health groups like the American Heart Association say it is a tactic to avoid further regulation and score a "public relations win."

“Some of the tobacco industry’s largest companies have supported tobacco 21 policies at the federal and state levels, either to score a public relations win or weaken efforts to pass more restrictive policies," AHA CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement. 

"Make no mistake – the tobacco industry continues to target youth and adolescents with marketing gimmicks and flavorings that are intended to addict a new generation of users."

Altria, which has a 35 percent stake in Juul, told The Hill in a statement that the company supports federal and state legislation raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21. 

"This is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates," Altria said. "The number one way kids today get access to tobacco products is by obtaining them from legal age purchasers. Approximately 80 percent of high school students in the U.S. turn 18 years old before graduation. By raising the minimum age to 21, no high school student will be able to purchase tobacco products legally, adding another hurdle to help reduce social access."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has threatened to crack down on the e-cigarette industry, including by pulling products off the markets, if rates don't drop. 

Juul in particular has been accused by the FDA and anti-tobacco advocates of purposely marketing its vaping products to kids, with candy-like flavors. 

The FDA in March issued a proposal requiring that stores only sell flavored e-cigarettes in areas that are off limits to anyone under 18, but public health groups want to see more. 

Legislation sponsored by Reps. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaThree legal scholars say Trump should be impeached; one thinks otherwise Overnight Defense: Trump cancels presser, cuts short NATO trip | Viral video catches leaders appearing to gossip about Trump | Dem witnesses say Trump committed impeachable offenses | Trump reportedly mulling more troops in Middle East Pelosi to Democrats: 'Are you ready?' MORE (D-Fla.) and Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care: House to vote next week on drug prices bill | Conway says Trump trying to find 'balance' on youth vaping | US spent trillion on hospitals in 2018 House to vote next week on sweeping bill to lower drug prices Hillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware MORE (D-N.J.), would do just that, and is supported by public health groups but opposed by tobacco companies. 

It's unclear if the bill will gain traction in the House, but Pallone is the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over health care issues.

— Updated at 4:30 p.m. to include comment from Altria