Bipartisan surprise! 2 Tobacco state senators seek smoking age hike

Here’s an unlikely combo of legislative sponsor and subject: Mitch McConnell and anti-smoking legislation.

The Senate Majority Leader is from Kentucky, the nation’s No. 2 tobacco-producing state after North Carolina. With federal incentives to switch crops, Kentucky’s tobacco output has been shrinking. But it still is such big business — among the top five exported crops — in 119 of the state’s 120 counties.

In recent years Kentucky farmers planted more than 90,000 acres and harvested in excess of 210 million pounds of the crop.

Hence the surprise Monday when McConnell, who’s up for reelection next year, introduced federal legislation to raise the age to 21 for legal retail purchase of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

With the backing of McConnell and co-sponsor Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, it seems likely this unusually bipartisan legislation will be the first significant smoking measure in more than a decade.

Smoking had been declining in recent years, but then came vaping with all its flavors that propelled youth use of e-cigarettes to record levels last year.

“I recognize that I might seem like an unusual candidate to lead this charge,” McConnell said, adding, “Youth vaping is a public health crisis.”

McConnell maintained that farmers in his state had the same interest as anyone making sure that children do not become addicted to nicotine.

The legislative thinking is that teenagers would be likely to have 18-year-old friends, who could purchase the smoking products for them. But they’d be much less likely to have such accommodating friends who are 21.

As introduced, the measure also covers members of the military.

Improving the political outlook for the bill is the fact that the makers of the popular e-cigarette JUUL and Altria, which makes Marlboro among other brands, have both endorsed raising the legal smoking age.

A growing number of state legislatures have been moving toward hiking the legal smoking age on their own. McConnell’s bill essentially requires states to pass their own laws raising the tobacco-purchasing age to 21 or lose federal substance abuse grants beginning in the 2021 fiscal year.