Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that he will introduce a bill in the Senate next month to raise the nationwide minimum age for buying tobacco products and vaping devices from 18 to 21.
The proposal comes as 12 states and 450 localities, such as New York City, Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, have already raised the age for smoking and vaping to 21.
Republican McConnell announced his plans at a joint news conference in his tobacco-producing home state of Kentucky with Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, and two state legislators.
McConnell said he had heard from parents about an "unprecedented spike" in vaping among teenagers, as well as those who struggled to quit smoking as adults after starting at a young age.
"Unfortunately, it’s reaching epidemic levels around the country,” McConnell said.
McConnell's office noted that Kentucky leads the nation with 34% of cancers tied directly to smoking.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said it had not seen the specifics of the McConnell bill and could not comment, but expressed strong support for "effective federal legislation" to raise the tobacco age to 21 nationwide.
The group noted that it had supported bills introduced in the last Congress by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo, that are expected to be re-introduced soon.
The organization said it was "deeply concerned" that tobacco companies have worked to add special interest provisions to state and federal bills that shield the industry from other regulations to protect kids and public health, such as prohibitions on flavored tobacco products.
"It is critical that Congress enact strong Tobacco 21 legislation that is free of special interest provisions that benefit the industry," the group said.
In particular, the campaign opposes any provisions that would benefit the tobacco industry by creating a new definition of "vapor product" that would include the IQOS (I-Quit-Ordinary-Smoking) heat-not-burn tobacco products.
IQOS products differ from e-cigarettes it the use of real tobacco, not the flavored liquid nicotine typical in e-cigarettes.
While Kentucky remains a tobacco-producing state, its production has plummeted to a record-low 57,000 acres last year from more than 200,000 acres in the ’90s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Many tobacco farmers have switched to growing hemp, a fiber-producing plant, which was legalized nationwide by Congress last year.
Despite McConnell's push on the federal level, Kentucky last year rejected a similar state bill to raise the age for buying tobacco and vaping products
Twelve states — Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, Maine, Utah, Washington and Virginia — have already passed such measures.
Instead, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law this month a ban on the use of tobacco products in all Kentucky public schools and events starting in 2020.
The bill passed after it was watered down to give school boards three years to opt out of the ban and to allow adults to smoke during school field trips or events off school grounds if students are not present.
The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey found a "rampant rise" in e-cigarette use by young people, Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said in a statement in February.
He said the survey, compiled by the FDA and the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 4.9 million middle- and high-school students were current users of some type of tobacco product in 2018, up from 3.6 million in 2017.
"This increase is driven by an alarming surge in e-cigarette use," he said.
Gottlieb has also pointed to mounting evidence that large numbers of youths are not just experimenting, they are becoming addicted.
"These products aren’t replacing cigarettes," he said."They are expanding the number of young people addicted to nicotine. Studies demonstrate clearly that the youths using e-cigarettes are not the kids who probably would have smoked cigarettes; they are the kids who are the least likely to smoke."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sen. McConnell to offer bill raising nationwide age limit for buying tobacco and vaping products to 21