As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faces re-election in 2020, he’s using his powerful post to prop up a bipartisan issue that could gain traction. “It’s an epidemic. It’s spread into the high schools and the middle schools. It’s a growing problem,” said McConnell.
On its face, the Tobacco-Free Youth Act, aimed to lift the nationwide minimum purchasing age of tobacco to twenty one, doesn’t seem all that controversial. The health risks associated with tobacco has long been established.
Several states, including California, and cities across the country, like New York, have already raised the age.
The tobacco lobby is even championing the effort but corporations could have ulterior motives, avoiding more punitive regulations down the line like higher taxes and a ban on flavored tobacco products.
“There’s nothing that prohibits these battles from being fought from every state in the nation. We don’t preempt the field. We don’t tell states what they can’t do,” said McConnell.
McConnell acknowledges tobacco has deep cultural roots in Kentucky. He says there are still about 2,600 tobacco farms in the state. Big tobacco’s loss could be the hemp industry's gain. Senator McConnell was instrumental in industrial hemp becoming legal through the Farm Bill last year. As he works to limit vaping among teens, he continues to tout the benefits of the growing hemp economy.
“The number of people in tobacco production went down dramatically and so you’ve got a lot of people saying, what am I going to do? I still want to be a farmer, what am I going to do? I’m not in the tobacco business anymore. It’s a good replacement for a lot of Kentucky farmers who simply discontinued growing tobacco,” said McConnell.
McConnell believes there is a pathway to his bill becoming law, citing support from more than a dozen advocates and public health groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, is a cosponsor on the bill. “There’s pretty broad support for it and as the Majority Leader of the Senate, I’m usually in a pretty good position to help make these things happen.”