Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Pelosi says GOP senators 'voted to aid and abet' voter suppression for blocking revised elections bill Manchin insists he hasn't threatened to leave Democrats MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineBiden injects new momentum into filibuster fight Democratic frustration with Sinema rises Harris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia 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.
"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."
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 ShalalaDemocrats face bleak outlook in Florida 'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection Pelosi, Schumer must appoint new commissioners to the CARES Act oversight panel MORE (D-Fla.) and Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneHouse Democrats announce bill to rein in tech algorithms House Democrats ramp up probe of FDA approval of Alzheimer's drug Intercept bureau chief: Democrats dropping support of Medicare for All could threaten bill's momentum 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