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McConnell, Kaine introduce bipartisan Senate bill to raise the federal smoking age to 21

Key Points
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Tim Kaine introduced a bill Monday that would raise the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21.
  • Both McConnell, R-Ky., and Kaine, D-Va., hail from tobacco-producing states.
  • Federal regulators have declared teen use of e-cigarettes an "epidemic."
Teenage visitors smoking electronic cigarettes at a vape trade fair. 
Sergei Konkov | TASS | Getty Images

Sens. Mitch McConnell and Tim Kaine introduced a bill Monday that would raise the federal minimum age to buy tobacco to 21 in hopes of curbing what regulators are calling an "epidemic" of teen vaping.

The bill covers all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. It does not prevent local governments from passing stricter laws nor does it exempt military personnel, two policies public health groups had feared. Both McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, and Kaine, D-Va., hail from tobacco-producing states.

"Today, we are coming together to side with young people's health," Kaine said in a statement. "With this bipartisan legislation, Senator McConnell and I are working to address one of the most significant public health issues facing our nation today.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers last month introduced similar legislation, which has won backing from public health groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association. Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Donna Shalala, D-Fla., have also introduced legislation in the House to raise the smoking age, along with other provisions like banning flavors.

Fourteen states and hundreds of local governments have already raised the age. Cigarette and vaping giants Altria, British American Tobacco and Juul are actively supporting these efforts.

Public health groups had feared McConnell's bill would be too industry-friendly. American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown on Monday said she supports the bill, known as the Tobacco-Free Youth Act.

"We commend Majority Leader McConnell and Sen. Kaine for prioritizing the health of teens and young adults with a bill to raise the national sales age for tobacco products to 21," she said in a statement. "We urge strong bipartisan support for this bill as written, and we call on lawmakers to reject any effort to add language that would weaken its impact or benefit tobacco companies."

Ninety percent of cigarette smokers try their first cigarette before they turn 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High school seniors who can legally buy tobacco products may share them with their friends, an issue that's come into focus amid a huge surge in teen vaping.

In 2018, the number of high school students who said they currently used tobacco products increased by about 38%, the CDC found in its annual National Youth Tobacco Survey. The agency blamed the increase on e-cigarettes. The number of high school students in the survey who said they had vaped in the last 30 days surged by almost 78% from 2017 to 2018, prompting the FDA to declare teen vaping an "epidemic."

Read the full text of the bill.