Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he will introduce a national Tobacco 21 bill next month. The powerful Republican lawmaker’s backing of legislation that until now has been mostly supported by Democrats probably signals a turning point.
It isn’t yet known if the McConnell bill will have additional components that might make it a reasonable compromise for vaping advocates who oppose Tobacco 21. For example, if it included restrictions on FDA flavor rules, it might be more palatable. But that is probably a moot point, because if the leader of the Republican-controlled Senate supports it, it is likely to pass. McConnell represents Kentucky, a major tobacco state, and is probably working in concert with tobacco companies.
“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 statement. “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.”
“My legislation will be similar to the current system, where retailers have the responsibility to verify the age of anyone buying tobacco products—we’ll just raise the age from 18 to 21,” McConnell said. It’s unclear if the law would affect the guidance FDA is currently finalizing that will ban retail sales of flavored vaping products except in adult-only stores.
McConnell says existing state Tobacco 21 laws “will serve as helpful guidance as I craft my federal legislation. For example, my bill will include an exemption for men and women who serve in uniform, similar to state T21 laws.”
Tobacco 21 opponents often point to the disconnect between allowing 18-year-olds to join the military and prohibiting them from buying tobacco. The legality of a ban that exempts military members and targets civilians is questionable.
“To me, the most serious threat involves the use of vaping devices for teens under 18 years old. Far too often, 18 year olds who are still in high school and can legally buy vaping devices are sharing them with their younger classmates,” said Senator McConnell.
The major tobacco companies and JUUL Labs support Tobacco 21 laws, but most representatives of the independent vaping industry oppose such laws. No consumer advocacy organization supports Tobacco 21 legislation, because it abandons adults younger than 21 who want to use low-risk nicotine products.
The nationwide moral panic over teenage vaping has fueled demand for bans and restrictions, including increased age limits. The Tobacco 21 movement has exploded on local and statewide levels this year, with more than 20 states proposing T21 laws in the current legislative session.
Six new states have adopted a minimum sales age of 21 so far in 2019, with more on the way soon. Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 450 cities and counties, have passed laws restricting tobacco (and vape) sales to customers 21 and over. Those states are Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Washington. (Some of the laws have not yet taken effect.)
There are currently two other bills in Congress that, if passed, would increase the minimum sales age requirement to 21. In addition to instituting Tobacco 21, GOP Rep. Robert Aderholt’s SCOTT Act would require signature on delivery for online sales. The Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act, introduced by Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone and Donna Shalala, would impose a minimum age requirement of 21, and also ban flavors and online sales, and extract FDA user fees from the vaping industry.