LEXINGTON, Ky.- In May, Senator Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to say, “Today, I am introducing federal legislation to make 21 the new minimum age for purchasing any tobacco product, anywhere in the United States. Let me say that again. A new age, nationwide, for purchasing anything classified as a tobacco product – cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapor products, and everything else. It shouldn’t be 18 any longer. It should be 21. And this legislation will make that happen."
Since introducing the Tobacco-Free Youth Act, the bill has now passed the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).
“We think that it will cause a significant reduction in the smoking rates, and in the vaping rates for people under the age of 21, said Ben Chandler, the CEO for Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
A report from the Institute of Medicine found that most adult smokers start smoking before turning 21.
Kentucky has the highest cancer rates in the nation. Chandler says research shows that 30 percent of Kentucky's cancer is smoking related, so he says he wants to eradicate that 30 percent.
Chandler explained he likes that the bill McConnell and his co-sponsor, Democrat Tim Kaine from Virginia drafted, includes not just tobacco, but also e-cigarettes. “Both we consider to be a problem, but the most recent problem has been this vaping epidemic. We’ve seen vaping rates increase by 78 percent amongst high school students in the last year alone. I mean, that’s just quite a remarkable thing. And we’re seeing middle school students vaping. I ran across some who had said they were even aware of a kindergartener who was vaping.”
Chandler says he believes this bill will impact the number of minors who start to smoke. “Young people have a tendency to do these things socially. They do them socially with kids closer to their own age. And if 18-year-olds can legally get these products, then they’re going to be more apt to share them with 17-year-olds and 16-year olds.
The bill is also supported by Kentucky's largest tobacco lobbyist, Altria Group. In a statement, Altria Group CEO Howard Willard said, “Altria strongly supports raising the legal age of purchase to 21 for all tobacco products and we’re pleased to see bipartisan, bicameral tobacco 21 legislation introduced. Now is the time to move on 21, which Altria believes is the most immediate and effective action to reverse underage e-vapor usage rates.” Altria Group is the parent company of Phillip Morris and the Smokeless Tobacco Company.
Steve Pratt with the Burley Tobacco Growers Association doesn’t think it will impact them much. He explained, “It will hurt us in the fact that if less people are smoking, regardless what age they are, then there will be less cigarettes made, less Burley tobacco that goes into cigarettes. I actually think that would actually be a very small number because cigarette smoking is declining worldwide regardless of this bill or any other bill.”
But as far as supporting or opposing the legislation, Pratt’s group is staying neutral. “We have not taken an official position on the bill. We do have policies in place when it comes to the freedom of smoke, the freedom of choice. Our policy actually does state that we support policies that prohibit sale or distribution of tobacco to minors. Now, we don’t get to define what a minor is, so that’s left up to the federal government.”
Kentucky tried to pass a similar bill this past legislative session but the bill, Senate Bill 249 was snuffed out in committee.
Chandler says he actually prefers this bill. “This one is a good one. The one Senator McConnell is doing is a comprehensive and it basically just simply says, flat out, you can’t do it. It doesn’t require states to pass their own law, which we like that provision as well.”
Minority leader Rocky Adkins says from what he has heard, Kentucky is split on this bill. He said that there are some long-standing tobacco farmers, but that in recent years, many in Kentucky have changed their view on how tobacco impacts health.
While the bill has passed committee, there is no timeline for it to be called to the floor. It has been rolled into a 246-page amendment to a healthcare bill that along with the smoking age, addresses surprise medical bills, prescription drug prices, and improving transparency in healthcare.