McConnell Bill Would Raise Age for Tobacco Sales to 21

Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell / Getty Images

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will introduce a bill next month to raise the national age of tobacco sales from 18 to 21, primarily to curb the rise in teenage vaping.

"For some time, I’ve been hearing from the parents who are seeing an unprecedented spike in vaping among their teenage children," McConnell said in a news release. "In addition, we all know people who started smoking at a young age and who struggled to quit as adults. Unfortunately it’s reaching epidemic levels around the country."

McConnell is following in the footsteps of 12 states and several other local governments that have raised the sale of tobacco products to 21 years old. The legislation will be crafted using the state bills as a guideline, according to the news release. Similar to the state bills, the federal legislation will exempt active military personnel.

Defenders of the bills frequently say that when 18 through 20 year olds have access to tobacco products, they can easily transfer them to their underage friends. Some surveys have shown that the vast majority of smokers begin smoking before the age of 21 and about half begin smoking before the age of 18.

McConnell’s legislation may be part of a larger plan by regulators to clamp down on vaping products. Less than a month ago, the Food and Drug Administration announced a plan to more heavily regulate and even restrict some flavored tobacco products. The regulations would be aimed at products with fruity flavors, which some believe are motivating children to start smoking.

In a press statement earlier this year, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that these fruity vaping products are not becoming a less harmful alternative for people who would otherwise be smoking. Rather, he said that these are children who would not have smoked cigarettes, but were pulled in by the fruity flavors.

But some promoters of vaping products say this crusade will do more harm than good, often arguing that these products are providing healthier alternatives to conventional cigarette smoking. They have also argued that consumers should not have their choices restricted.

"Banning the sale of cigars and dip with characterizing flavors is an unfair policy that singles out adult tobacco consumers and inhibits them from buying the products they choose to enjoy," a statement from Citizens for Tobacco Rights says.

"Flavor bans unfairly and unnecessarily limit the ability of adult tobacco consumers to purchase products that they prefer," it reads. "Banning the sale of these products to adult smokers and dippers just isn’t fair, plain and simple. Instead of a ban depriving adult tobacco consumers of products they want, the focus should remain on responsible marketing, responsible sale at retail and reducing underage access to tobacco products."

Patrick Hedger, director of policy at FreedomWorks, a nonprofit promoting limited government, said in a phone interview that heavier restrictions on vaping products are a threat to personal liberty and may do more harm than good.

The FDA’s moves are a classic example of "the government coming in and saying ‘we know what’s best,’" and that not being the case, Hedger said.

Congress initially wanted to promote vaping products as a way to wean people off of smoking, which Hedger said is more harmful to health. Because these products offer a safer alternative, he said it would be dangerous for the FDA to more heavily regulate them.

Although Hedger said that children vaping is a problem, he warned that regulators are falling into the "Nirvana fallacy," or the idea that regulations can achieve the perfect outcome of eliminating all tobacco use. Instead, he said that more heavily regulating vaping products takes the government backwards if their attempt is healthier citizens.

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