The youth vaping crisis is putting the health of our children at risk. To address this rampant and dangerous new trend, I’ve introduced the “Tobacco-Free Youth Act,” a bipartisan federal bill with my fellow tobacco state colleague, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). Once enacted, our legislation will raise the minimum purchase age for all tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 and help protect young people from nicotine.
As Kentucky’s senior Senator, I understand the long and complicated history our country — and our Commonwealth in particular — has with tobacco.
When our founding fathers needed to secure loans from France to win our independence, they chose tobacco as collateral. Lewis and Clark used it as peace offerings during their explorations. To this day, every visitor to the U.S. Capitol sees tobacco leaves adorning its historic corridors.
Early Kentuckians put their trust in tobacco. A pocket full of seeds could mean a new foundation for a family’s future. The crop became a pillar of Kentucky’s economy and a centerpiece of our heritage. Before long, Kentucky’s farmers produced more tobacco than any other state in America.
When the Depression brought new struggles for farmers, Kentucky’s U.S. Senator and then-Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley created a federal quota system with government-endorsed assets to support growers.
For many years, the program worked. When I first joined the Senate, more than two-thirds of Kentucky farms grew tobacco. The crop accounted for nearly half of our Commonwealth’s agricultural production.
By 2004, however, demand for tobacco had fallen, and federal quotas had transformed from an asset into a burden. I wanted to free our farm families from the old quota system and help give them new chances to innovate. I engineered the $10 billion “Tobacco Buyout,” which recognized farmers’ investment into tobacco while also providing assistance to explore other opportunities.
My legislation creating the Buyout helped many Kentucky farmers move away from tobacco and toward other farming commodities. Now, Kentucky’s increasingly diverse agriculture economy supports good jobs throughout the state. I’m especially proud of the recent growth of hemp production, which has become more popular since President Trump signed my bill to fully legalize the versatile crop.
When it comes to tobacco, Kentuckians acknowledge our past and the role the historic crop still plays for a number of farmers today. But we must also recognize the growing public health crisis of teenage vaping. Kentucky farmers don’t want their children developing unhealthy addictions any more than any other parent.
To me, the most serious threat involves the use of vaping devices by teens younger than the age of 18. Too often, 18-year-olds who are still in high school are sharing their vape products with their younger friends. In fact, 1.5 million more kids reported trying tobacco products last year. Since younger teenagers are less likely to hang around 21-year-olds, my proposal will help keep e-cigarettes, vaping devices, and other tobacco products out the hands of middle and high school students.
Nicotine can cause irreparable damage to a teenager’s developing brain. The addictive chemicals reduce impulse control, attention and cognition. They can also increase mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Studies show that 90 percent of adult daily smokers used their first tobacco product before age 19. If we’re able to keep these dangerous products away from our kids, then they’re less likely to maintain this harmful habit later in life.
Around the country, more than a dozen states have passed laws to raise the minimum tobacco purchase age to 21. Here at home, Senator Julie Raque Adams and State Representative Kim Moser championed a bill making all Kentucky schools tobacco free. Even some major tobacco retailors are voluntarily raising their own minimum age limits to 21. Our bipartisan legislation builds on that momentum with a nationwide policy to protect our kids.
As Senators from tobacco states, Senator Kaine and I recognize our responsibility as parents and elected officials to do everything we can to keep these harmful products out of our children’s hands.
Passing the “Tobacco-Free Youth Act” is one of my top priorities, and I look forward to working with Kentucky parents, local leaders and my colleagues in Congress to make it happen. The future of our children is too important to wait.
Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, is the Senate Majority Leader. He recently introduced the bipartisan “Tobacco-Free Youth Act” to raise the minimum purchase age of all tobacco products to 21 and previously engineered the 2004 Tobacco Buyout to support Kentucky farm families.