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Senator McConnell, a Tobacco Ally, Supports Raising Age to Buy Cigarettes

By: Sheila Kaplan, The New York Times
April 18, 2019

WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell, long one of the tobacco industry’s loyal allies, said on Thursday that he would sponsor legislation to raise the minimum age to 21 for the purchase of tobacco and e-cigarettes.

Mr. McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader whose home state, Kentucky, is the nation’s second-largest tobacco producer, said he was motivated by the increasing rate of vaping among teenagers and young adults.

Public health agencies have cracked down on e-cigarette companies and distributors in an effort to curb access to the products.

“For some time, I’ve been hearing from the parents who are seeing an unprecedented spike in vaping among their teenage children,” Mr. McConnell said at a news conference Thursday in Louisville, Ky. “In addition, we all know people who started smoking at a young age and who struggled to quit as adults.”

Proposals called “Tobacco 21” that would raise the minimum age required to buy cigarettes to 21 from 18 have been gaining more support in recent years.

Tobacco and vaping companies have gotten on board, too, partly in an apparent effort to distance themselves from accusations that they have deliberately marketed their products to youth to hook a new generation. Altria, Juul and R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company all have said they back raising the minimum age.

“We commend Senator McConnell for announcing this legislation as we strongly support raising the purchasing age for all tobacco products, including vapor products, to 21,” said Kevin Burns, chief executive of Juul. “Tobacco 21 laws fight one of the largest contributors to this problem — sharing by legal-age peers — and they have been shown to dramatically reduce youth usage rates.”

Altria and R. J. Reynolds also praised the senator and noted that they had also supported state Tobacco 21 efforts. David Sutton, an Altria spokesman, said that so far this year eight states had passed such legislation, which brings the number of states with Tobacco 21 laws to 14 as well as the District of Columbia; two of the measures await signing.

Public health advocates were more cautious, reserving judgment until they see the details of the plans.

“While we strongly support raising the tobacco age to 21,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “it is critical that Congress enact strong Tobacco 21 legislation that is free of special interest provisions that benefit the industry.”

Some provisions that Altria, Juul, R. J. Reynolds and the Vapor Technology Association, a trade group, have sought to include in state proposals treat the industry more favorably on other issues. A few measures would prevent local governments from banning flavors or otherwise regulating e-cigarettes and tobacco products. Others would make enforcement difficult, or penalize youths for buying them, rather than fining stores for selling the products to those under the age limit.

In the House, lawmakers have sponsored two T21 proposals. Earlier this month, Representative Robert Aderholt, Republican of Alabama, introduced the Stopping Consumption of Tobacco by Teens Act. The bill’s acronym is a tribute to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who stepped down as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration this month and was known for his efforts to try to reduce youth vaping.

Brian Rell, Mr. Aderholt’s chief of staff, said Juul opposed his bill because it included a requirement that someone over age 21 must sign for delivery of the product.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has also raised concerns about aspects of the legislation. It and some other public health organizations prefer a proposal introduced this week by Representatives Frank Pallone, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Donna Shalala, a Florida Democrat and former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Senator McConnell’s bill is a question mark for many tobacco industry watchers. Eric Lindblom, a former F.D.A. tobacco official who is now at the O’Neill Institute at Georgetown Law, wondered how committed Mr. McConnell was to protecting the tobacco control law passed in 2009.

Mr. Lindblom suggested that Congress could pass a free-standing bill that would raise the minimum age for purchase of tobacco products to 21. Or, he said, Mr. McConnell could start a new debate over provisions of the landmark act and add measures that would undo important restrictions.

“Raising the age to 21 by itself is terrific,” Mr. Lindblom said. “If that’s all the act said, it would be terrific. There’s no reason for the bill to say anything more than that.”

Posted on 04/22/2019 in