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 McConnellElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineTexas raises age to purchase tobacco to 21 Texas raises age to purchase tobacco to 21 Democrats push to make national security a 2020 wedge issue 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 ShalalaAnnual 'Will on the Hill' pokes fun at 2020 race Annual 'Will on the Hill' pokes fun at 2020 race Democrats face voters clamoring for impeachment MORE (D-Fla.) and Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneTop Trump health official warned against controversial ObamaCare changes in private memo Top Trump health official warned against controversial ObamaCare changes in private memo First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides 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