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May 21, 2019

McConnell, Kaine unveil bipartisan bill to raise the smoking age to 21

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    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on Monday introduced a bill to increase from 18 to 21 the minimum age at which U.S. residents can purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

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    The senators unveiled the legislation as FDA and public health officials have intensified their focus on combatting youth tobacco use, which has surged in recent years in large part because of rising e-cigarette use among teens. Several retailers—including Rite Aid, Walgreens Boots Alliance, and Walmart—have announced they no longer will sell tobacco products to individuals younger than 21. In addition, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) last month announced a bipartisan, bicameral bill, called the Tobacco to 21 Act, which would increase the legal age to purchase tobacco products in the United States to 21.

    Senate bill details

    The Senate bill, called the Tobacco-Free Youth Act, would prohibit retailers from selling tobacco products to all individuals under age 21. The bill does not include exemptions for individuals serving in the military, as McConnell previously had suggested.

    According to Roll Call, the bill would direct states to enact their own legislation to increase the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to at least 21 in order to not lose federal grants aimed at combatting substance use disorders beginning in fiscal year 2021.

    A total of 12 states and 450 localities already have raised the minimum age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21—and some states have enacted measures that will raise their minimum tobacco purchasing ages in 2020 and 2021, Roll Call reports.

    It is unclear whether the Senate measure would have support in the House, The Hill reports.


    McConnell said, "We've heard from countless parents who have seen the youth vaping crisis firsthand." He continued, "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."

    McConnell during a speech on the Senate floor Monday said he would make enacting the bill one of his utmost priorities, Politico reports.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, and other public health groups applauded the bill, and urged lawmakers not to amend the measure with carve-outs or special provisions for the tobacco industry, Politico reports.

    Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said, "We urge strong bipartisan support for [the McConnell legislation] as written, and we call on lawmakers to reject any effort to add language that would weaken its impact or benefit tobacco companies."

    Altria, a leading tobacco company in the United States, also praised the bill. The company said, "This is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates. The number one way kids today get access to tobacco products is by obtaining them from legal age purchasers. Approximately 80% 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" (Owermohle, Politico, 5/20; Sukin, Axios, 5/20; Hellmann, The Hill, 5/20; Siddons, Roll Call, 5/20).

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