Sen. McConnell to introduce bill to raise national smoking age to 21

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By Janelle Griffith

Sen. Mitch McConnell announced Thursday he will introduce legislation aimed at raising the national smoking age to 21, from 18.

The bill will be introduced in May and will cover all tobacco products, including vaping devices.

McConnell, R-Ky., who made the announcement in his home state, one of the nation’s largest tobacco producers, noted Kentucky has some of the highest cancer rates in the country. From 2012-16, lung cancer made up 66 percent of all cancer deaths in the state, according to the American Cancer Society.

Under the legislation, it will remain the responsibility of retailers to verify the age of anyone buying tobacco products.

Nearly 9 out of 10 cigarette smokers first try smoking cigarettes by 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

McConnell said vaping devices pose the “most serious threat,” especially to middle school and teenage students and raising the age to 21 will present fewer opportunities for children to access these devices. More than 3 million U.S. high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018, up 78 percent from the year before, the CDC found in its annual National Youth Tobacco Survey.

The bill will include an exemption for men and women who serve in uniform, according to McConnell, the Senate majority leader.

“I hope my legislation will earn strong, bipartisan support in the Senate,” McConnell said. “I’m confident many of my colleagues will agree that protecting our young people from starting tobacco use at an early age can have remarkable, long-term health benefits for Kentucky and the country.”

Tobacco giant Altria, maker of Marlboro and other brands of cigarettes, said it “strongly supports raising the legal age of purchase for all tobacco products.”

“This is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e- vapor usage rates,” the company said in a statement.

Twelve states — Delaware, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and Utah — have already enacted laws that set 21 as the minimum age to buy tobacco products.

Maryland and New York are on the verge of enacting similar standards as well, according to the anti-smoking group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

David K. Li contributed.