A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Sen. McConnell aims to sponsor legislation making 21 the legal age to buy tobacco products in all states


By Al Cross and Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that he would sponsor legislation to make 21 the legal age to buy tobacco products in every state – a change that 12 states have recently adopted, but one that failed to pass the Kentucky legislature this year.

McConnell said at a Louisville news conference that his move was prompted by the epidemic of “vaping” with electronic cigarettes among students in high schools and even middle schools.

“The most serious threat involves the use of vaping devices for teens under 18,” who can get them from 18-year-olds at school, he said. “By raising the age that you can legally purchase to 21 tobacco won’t be in most high schools presenting fewer opportunities for children to get their hands on vaping devices.”

Photo from Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

The change is favored by the nation’s largest tobacco company, Altria Group, which recently bought 35 percent of Juul Labs, maker of the most popular vaping device. Altria tried unsuccessfully to get a “tobacco 21” bill passed in the recent session of the Kentucky General Assembly. It has been a major contributor to McConnell’s political causes.

Altria Vice President David Fernandez told lawmakers at the Feb. 25 committee meeting why they supported the bill: “Putting tobacco on par with alcohol makes sense and we do hope that doing that will also persuade policymakers to approach tobacco regulation a bit more reasonably.”

Speaking in general on April 17 at a tobacco conference, Elizabeth Anderson-Hoagland, who was recently the policy analyst with the Kentucky Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program, outlined some of the restrictions Altria is trying to avoid, like a ban on flavors and menthol, or rules that would limit the amount of nicotine allowed in e-cigarettes, or “pre-market review” requirements that are placed on new products.

Amy Barkley, regional advocacy director for Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said that while her organization has supported legislation to raise the nationwide age to purchase tobacco to 21 in the past, they couldn’t comment specifically on the bill that McConnell will introduce because they haven’t seen the language.

“While we strongly support raising the age of sale for tobacco to 21, we are deeply concerned that tobacco companies have worked to add special interest provisions to state and federal Tobacco 21 bills that shield the industry from other regulations to protect kids and public health, such as prohibitions on flavored tobacco products,” she said in an e-mail.

She added, “We also urge Congress not to exempt active military personnel from Tobacco 21 legislation as Sen. McConnell is proposing, particularly in light of the military’s recognition that tobacco use harms troop readiness and health and costs the government billions in health care costs annually. The military is actively working to reduce tobacco use within its ranks, and Congress should support these efforts by passing a tobacco 21 bill without a military exemption.”

McConnell spoke at the offices of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, with foundation President and CEO Ben Chandler and two Republican state legislators who have pushed for legislation to limit young people’s access to tobacco products.

Sen. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville said the vaping epidemic has reached her own family. She said that when her two teenage sons got physical exams for health insurance, nicotine showed up in their blood. “They said, ‘We don’t smoke, Mom. … All we’ve done is vape.’ . .. Even my own kids didn’t understand that there was nicotine and addiction in that vape.”

She said many teenagers “think that it’s an innocent kind of habit,” and “By raising this age to 21 we send a very clear message that we’re doing this for the health of those young people.”

When a reporter noted that higher taxes on tobacco products have been shown to be the most effective way to prevent use by young people, Adams noted that the legislature didn’t include electronic cigarettes in its big tobacco-tax increase last year, but “I think you’ll see that on the table.” The proposed tax on e-cigs was removed at the eleventh hour after lobbying by Altria.

Rep. Kim Moser of Taylor Mill, who sponsored the new law that will make all Kentucky schools that don’t opt out tobacco-free in July 2020, said raising the legal-purchase age to 21 “in no way is telling adults what they should do.” But when questioned, she acknowledged that 18-year-olds are considered adults: “Point taken, but I think it’s still about exposure to a very addictive substance.”

McConnell, asked why people who are old enough to vote shouldn’t be able to buy tobacco products, acknowledged, “Some people will look at it that way.” Asked what he would say to them, he said, “We’re gonna do it this way.”

Earlier, McConnell said, “As you all know, I’m in a particularly good position to enact legislation and this is gonna be a top priority that I’ll be working on.”

Mitch McConnell


As he turned the microphone over to Chandler, a Democrat who won a seat in Congress over candidates he supported, McConnell said, “Probably the first time we had a first joint press conference.” Chandler said they had one about the Blue Grass Army Depot.

“We’re very excited about your interest in this subject,” Chandler told McConnell. “The health of our people, the health, particularly, of our children is a nonpartisan issue if there ever was one.”

Altria’s tobacco-21 bill failed in Kentucky after one state senator said “Tobacco is still king,” but Chandler and McConnell said Kentucky is finally getting away from the culture of raising, using and defending tobacco. “We had an enormous number of people who made some or all of their income off of tobacco in one way or another,” McConnell said.

A 1997 poll by the Louisville Courier Journal found that 18 percent of Kentucky adults had some economic interest in tobacco, many from their shares of farm estates that included federal tobacco allotments. Chandler said that the state once had 60,000 tobacco farmers but now has fewer than 4,000. “It’s unbelievable how we have receded from the tobacco culture in a fairly short period of time,” he said.

Those allotments and the price supports that went with them were abolished in 2004 by a bill McConnell sponsored, but he noted that farmers were compensated “for the asset created when Alben Barkley was majority leader” of the Senate in 1940 and got the tobacco program passed. Barkley had won re-election in 1938 by defeating Chandler’s grandfather, then-Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler, in the Democratic primary.


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