McConnell to Introduce Tobacco 21 Legislation in May 2019

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Senator Mitch McConnell

It’s news that has the entire tobacco industry talking–yet another bill has been introduced that aims to raise the minimum age for people purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21. What makes this one any different? This time, it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) whose introducing and advocating for the bill.

McConnell says he was urged to act because of what he calls an “unprecedented spike” in the number of teenagers who were vaping and smoking e-cigarettes. McConnell has plans to introduce this bill in May 2019. This joins a fray of similar legislative bills introduced in the past few weeks, including the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019 introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL) [read more here] and the Stopping Consumption of Tobacco by Teens (SCOTT Act) introduced by Congressman Robert Aderholt [read more here]. On the state level, 12 states have already enacted their own form of Tobacco 21.

McConnell has not revealed the details of his bill but has said it will continue to make retailers responsible for age verification of tobacco products. It would also exempt members of the military, similar to Texas’ Senate-passed Tobacco 21 bill [read more here]. With McConnell now taking on the issue, Tobacco 21 now has not only bi-partisan support in some form but it also has support in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate, making it a piece of legislation both political parties would appear to support and agree on. Some of the industry’s big manufacturers, including Altria and JUUL, also support Tobacco 21.

“For some time, I’ve been hearing from the parents who are seeing an unprecedented spike in vaping among their teenage children. In addition, we all know people who started smoking at a young age and who struggled to quit as adults. Unfortunately, it’s reaching epidemic levels around the country. We have an epidemic of nicotine consumption either through cigarettes or through vaping in high schools and even middle schools, not only in our state but around the country,” McConnell said when speaking about his Tobacco 21 push.

“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,” Altria responded in a press release on Tobacco 2 legislation measures.

Some anti-tobacco groups worry that tobacco companies have too much influence over the legislative process and are adding in state provisions to limit the regulation of tobacco products. This fear stems from provisions found in the legislation introduced by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), that would allow some tobacco products–like heat-not-burn products iQOS, to be classified as a vapor product. This would allow iQOS to avoid certain regulations imposed on cigarette products. Some anti-tobacco groups are also not buying into tobacco companies supporting Tobacco 21 efforts, fearing the often-times unpublicized provisions make the overall bill weak in addressing the big issue–keeping tobacco products out of the hands of minors–while allowing tobacco companies and retailers who are selling products they shouldn’t operate with fewer consequences.

McConnell’s state, Kentucky, is a leading producer of tobacco in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kentucky has one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the U.S. and along with West Virginia, Kentucky has the highest rate of death linked to smoking. McConnell has also reportedly received more than $160,000 in contributions from Altria according to records kept by the Center for Responsive Politics [view here], who is a major cigarette manufacturer but also is the parent company of premium cigar producer Nat Sherman International and minority stakeholder in JUUL. Altria supports raising the minimum purchasing age for tobacco products to 21 while also investing money, research and time in areas outside of tobacco in the past year, including cannabis with its investment in Cronos Group [read more here] and reduced harm products [read more here].

While McConnell’s bill was sparked by teens’ use of vapor and e-cigarette products, it will cover all tobacco products. McConnell’s Tobacco 21 legislation will introduced in May 2019. For all the latest legislation and FDA news impacting the tobacco industry, click here.