Tobacco was grown in 119 of Kentucky’s 120 counties when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell first ran for Senate in 1984.
On Thursday, 35 years later, McConnell announced he will introduce legislation to lift the legal age for purchasing all tobacco products, including vaping devices, from 18 to 21.
The legislation is intended to cut down on the number of teens using tobacco, especially as vaping has gained popularity among high-school students. McConnell said it is too easy for classmates who are 18 to buy tobacco products and then provide them to their younger peers.
“I hope my legislation will earn strong, bipartisan support in the Senate,” McConnell said. “I’m confident many of my colleagues will agree that protecting our young people from starting tobacco use at an early age can have remarkable, long-term health benefits for Kentucky and the country.”
Kentucky has the highest rate of lung cancer in the nation. An estimated 4,960 new cases will be diagnosed in 2019 and an estimated 3,290 Kentuckians will die of the disease this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
One study showed that 45 percent of high school students in the state have tried vaping.
McConnell acknowledged that tobacco was once a powerful industry in Kentucky, but said there are fewer than one thousand tobacco growers left in the state.
“I think indirectly that helps as we try to move away from the tobacco culture in Kentucky upon which we were dependent for so long,” McConnell said.
McConnell said there would be exemptions for military personnel who are under the age of 21. When asked if people will question the fact that 18-year-olds will be allowed to vote but not buy tobacco, McConnell remained steadfast.
“I’m sure some people will see it that way,” McConnell said. “We’re going to do it this way.”
McConnell was joined by former Democratic Congressman Ben Chandler, who is the founder and CEO of the Foundation for Healthy Kentucky, and two Republican state lawmakers, Sen. Julie Raque-Adams and Rep. Kim Moser. Both have tried to pass legislation to curb tobacco use in Kentucky.
“This is for the health of our kids,” Chandler said. “There’s no time to waste in addressing the surge in 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,”
Raque-Adams said she had experienced the rise of vaping with her own kids. When she found out her son had nicotine in his system, she asked why and he told her he had only vaped, not smoked.
“Even my own kids didn’t understand that there was nicotine in that vape,” Raque-Adams said.
The Kentucky General Assembly has taken limited steps in recent years to curb tobacco use in the state, including increasing the cigarette tax in 2018 and passing a bill this year to make school campuses tobacco-free.
Moser said she hoped the legislation would help prevent addiction.
“This is not telling adults what they should do,” Moser said. “Except that we need to send a message loud and clear to youth that exposure to tobacco products is not going to be a good long-term issue for them.”