The bipartisan pair, who both hail from states that have relied on tobacco as a cash crop for generations, said their proposal is driven in large part by the dramatic increase in the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices by teenagers.
“We’ve heard from countless parents who have seen the youth vaping crisis firsthand, and together, Senator Kaine and I are addressing this public health crisis head-on,” McConnell said in a statement Monday announcing the Tobacco-Free Youth Act. “By making it more difficult for tobacco products to end up in the hands of middle school and high school students, we can protect our children and give them the opportunity to grow and develop into healthy adults. We’re ready for a national debate about the health of our children.”
The senators cited figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 1.5 million more young people smoked e-cigarettes in 2018 than they did in 2017, a precipitous rise that researchers have called unprecedented. Vaping devices far outstripped other tobacco consumption methods, including cigarettes, cigars or smokeless tobacco.
“Today, we are coming together to side with young people’s health. With this bipartisan legislation, Senator McConnell and I are working to address one of the most significant public health issues facing our nation today,” Kaine said in a statement. He called the increased age restrictions a “critical” effort to keep tobacco out of schools and “away from our children.”
The proposed act does not have carve-outs that some health advocates had worried would be included. McConnell said last month he wanted the legislation to exempt military members, but the measure introduced Monday would apply to everyone. States would also not be prohibited from passing even tougher laws.
Fourteen states and many cities have already raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products.
Many tobacco and vaping companies have already said they back the proposal to increase the federal sales age. Juul, which has seen a meteoric rise in sales and social clout in recent years, said in April it would support McConnell in his efforts when the plans were first announced.
“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,” Kevin Burns, Juul’s chief executive, told The New York Times last month.
The proposal was cheered by health advocacy groups, including the American Heart Association, which said the legislation would “help remove tobacco from high schools altogether.”
“We commend Majority Leader McConnell and Sen. Kaine for prioritizing the health of teens and young adults with a bill to raise the national sales age for tobacco products to 21,” Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association, said in a statement. “We urge strong bipartisan support for this bill as written, and we call on lawmakers to reject any effort to add language that would weaken its impact or benefit tobacco companies.”
McConnell touted his new proposal on the Senate floor Monday while explaining the importance of tobacco in Kentucky’s history, noting the new law would not be a “zero-sum choice between farmers and public health.”
“We are proud of who we are,” the majority leader said, “But Kentucky farmers don’t want their children to get hooked on tobacco products while they’re in middle school or high school any more than any parents anywhere want that to happen.”
He continued: “Kentucky is proud of what we make. But we also take pride in the health and development of our children. And the sad reality is that Kentucky has been the home to the highest rates of cancer in the country.”