Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell formally introduced legislation Monday to raise the age for buying tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21, a move designed to combat the health effects of tobacco addiction across the country and help his home state of Kentucky move off production of the crop that has sagged in popularity for decades.
"Youth vaping is a public health crisis," McConnell said. "It's our responsibility as parents and public servants to do everything we can to keep these harmful products out of high schools and out of youth culture."
Because of McConnell's substantial influence and control in the Senate, the Tobacco-Free Youth Act will almost certainly come up for a vote on the floor. It is co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, which is also a leading tobacco growing state.
"We're backsliding," said Kaine, who signed a law in 2009 banning tobacco use in restaurants and bars when he was governor of Virginia. "Recent increases in youth tobacco use demonstrate we need to do more."
Both senators pointed to figures from the Centers for Disease Control that show an alarming spike in teen vaping since the recent advent of e-cigarettes.
"Kentucky farmers don't want their children to get hooked on tobacco products while they are in middle school or high school any more than any parent anywhere wants that to happen," McConnell said. "Kentucky is proud of what we make but we also want pride in the health and development of our children and the sad reality is that Kentucky's been home to the highest rates of cancer in our country."
Their bill is the second to be introduced this year to raise the age to 21. The other was authored by a bipartisan pair of senators: Republicans Mitt Romney of Utah and Todd Young of Indiana, and Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Brian Schatz of Hawaii. Kaine pledged to work with the four senators and McConnell mentioned their legislation in his speech without specifically saying if he supported it.
Backers of both measures say they avoided taking on controversial issues -- such has banning kid-focused flavors used in vaping that could bog down the legislation -- in order stay focused simply on raising the age of purchase, something that is supported by Altria, the large tobacco company that says it backs both bills.
Supporters argue keeping the legislation clean is the only way to ensure a bill can get at least 60 votes in the Senate, the number needed to break a filibuster. In fact, McConnell dropped from his legislation an exemption he had previously announced it would include for members of the military, something Schatz had called a non-starter.
The head of the anti-tobacco advocacy group Tobacco Free Kids issued a statement saying they support the bill from the four senators because it is "a strong bill with effective enforcement and penalties on retailers that sell tobacco products to minors and without special interest provisions that benefit the tobacco industry."
The group said it is still reviewing the McConnell and Kaine bill "to determine whether it meets our criteria for a strong bill as well," according to the statement from Matthew Myers.
McConnell has made a central selling point of his 2020 reelection campaign his years-long effort to wean Kentucky farmers off tobacco and toward growing industrial hemp. He boasts at events around Kentucky that he used his power and influence as majority leader to help ensure regulations on the production and sale of hemp were eased in last year's farm bill so that hemp is now "a fully legal commodity nationwide."
"Now we're seeing the future take shape right before our eyes," McConnell said on the floor. "Farmers in 99 of 120 counties are growing hemp. Processors are reporting more than $50 million in gross sales. And this is just one of the new crops our farmers are using to chart new directions and connect Kentucky's past with its future."
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