U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said Thursday that he would introduce legislation that would make it illegal for people younger than age 21 to buy tobacco and vaping products, such as electronic cigarettes, nationwide.
The Senate Majority Leader announced his intentions during a news conference in eastern Jefferson County, where he expressed concern about the widespread use of electronic cigarettes by America’s youth, including many middle and high school students.
“These young people may not know what chemicals they’re putting into their bodies the moment they inhale, let alone the long-term health risks that could negatively impact them once they reach adulthood,” McConnell said. ” …When teens vape at 15 they could be taking the first steps toward serious health problems throughout their entire lives.”
The tobacco-21 law, which will be introduced in May and include an exemption for “men and women who serve in uniform,” is designed to make it harder for youths — who sometimes get e-cigarettes from 18-year-old classmates — to obtain the products.
McConnell also said that he’s concerned about vaping making it difficult for kids to focus, learn and control impulses; its potential to be a gateway to addiction to other drugs; and the health effects of tobacco in general on the state of Kentucky.
McConnell said he expects to receive strong, bipartisan support in the Senate, adding, “as you all know I’m in a particularly good position to enact legislation and this is going to be a top priority that I’ll be working on.”
The senator from Kentucky was accompanied by Ben Chandler, president and chief executive of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, and other opponents of youth vaping such as state Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, and state Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville.
Adams, who noted that her own teenage boys had been caught up in the e-cigarette fad without realizing “there was nicotine and an addiction in that vape,” thanked McConnell for trying to address the issue.
“I think this is a bold step and I want to be supportive,” she said.
Chandler stressed the urgency of acting now to protect young people by passing the tobacco bill quickly.
“There is no time to waste in addressing the surge of youth vaping that’s inundating schools throughout Kentucky and the nation with a nicotine-packed product that threatens to damage our children’s brains and addict them to tobacco for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Raising the legal age for sales of all tobacco products from 18 to 21 is key to stemming the youth vaping epidemic. We’ve already lost years of progress in reducing youth tobacco use.”
Moser successfully sponsored a bill in the General Assembly earlier this year to ban tobacco and vaping products in Kentucky schools. But various legislators’ efforts to further protect kids by raising the purchasing age of such products to 21 and creating a hotline for students to report vaping failed.
A federal tobacco-21 law “really will serve to reduce addiction,” Moser said, adding, “we’ve put a lot of resources on a state level and federal level toward treatment of addiction and really have not done all that we can to prevent addiction.”
This post has been updated with additional comments from McConnell as well as comments from other leaders at the press conference.