Congressional push to raise smoking age comes from tobacco states

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- For generations, tobacco powered Kentucky’s economy. While the industry is withering in the Bluegrass State, it continues to pay addiction’s deadly price. The unlikeliest of reformers are calling for change in Washington.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) proposes raising the smoking age to 21 after years of fighting tobacco regulation. (Source: Gray DC)

Over his long career, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) fought cigarette tax hikes, and tougher penalties for Big Tobacco, but now, the country’s most-powerful Senator believes a divided Congress can help the country kick one of its deadliest habits. “I recognize I might seem like an unusual candidate to lead this charge,” he said while addressing his colleagues on the Senate floor.

McConnell is proposing raising the legal age for tobacco products from 18 to 21. He’s teamed up with another improbable tobacco state politician – Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. McConnell says the pairing shows Congressional gridlock can be overcome. “We can do things together that are important for the country,” McConnell said in a recent one-on-one interview.

Here’s what McConnell said swayed him:
- e-cigarettes are hooking another generation on nicotine.
- Kentucky has a fraction of the tobacco farms it did 20 years ago.
- The Bluegrass State, is home to the highest rate of deaths from lung cancer in the country.

“Raising the age to 21, it doesn’t solve every problem,” McConnell said, “but it does certainly make it harder, for those products to be purchased [underage].”

((Prof. Steve Billet – George Washington University

George Washington Political Science Professor Steve Billet said it’s an election year and public opinion is turning. “[McConnell]’s a pretty astute politician, he knows which way the wind’s blowing,” he said.

Big tobacco donates big money to McConnell and his associated political action committees every cycle. But this year, the industry’s lobbyists are publicly supporting the McConnell-Kaine bill. So, taking a stand shouldn’t cost the Senate Majority leader campaign cash as he runs for re-election. “This is not really a big problem for someone like [McConnell] now,” said Billet.

Every bill is a long-shot, especially in a politically-divided Congress. But, with support from McConnell, and similar proposals in the democratically-controlled house, there’s reason to believe this version stands a good a chance as any.

The bill would also require states to pass their own laws matching or exceeding the 21-and-up standard. Those that don’t would lose out on big chunks of federal cash.

Some anti-smoking advocates worry forcing state lawmakers to pass their own bills won’t leave enough momentum for other regulations they’re considering, like banning flavored tobacco products.

But Dr. Keith Mortman – the director of thoracic surgery at George Washington University Hospital - said raising the smoking age to 21 is long overdue. However it’s accomplished, he said doing so could save more than 200,000 young adults from tobacco-related deaths.

“Tobacco use and abuse in adolescents in the United States is a major issue and has been for a number of year,” he said, “I don’t know if it’s a silver bullet, but it’s a big step in the right direction.”

Dr. Mortman said while cigarette smoking is down among adolescents, other forms of tobacco-use – like vaping are rising exponentially. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C. have 21-and-up laws on the books, and Mortman said early data suggest they’re already making a difference.

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