McConnell made the urging at a news conference in Louisville, where he announced plans for legislation to raise the nationwide minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21 from 18. He said he expected to introduce the measure in May to restrict access to all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping devices.
“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 in a statement. Military personnel would be exempt.
McConnell’s home state of Kentucky is not among those. An effort to raise the tobacco purchase age there failed in February amid concerns it might hurt the state’s already shrinking tobacco industry.
Tobacco used to be a cash crop for Kentucky farmers, but that’s no longer the case. The state was expected to grow 57,000 acres in 2018, down from 200,000 acres in the 1990s, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The state’s new bumper crop: hemp, which may turn out to be more profitable.
Kentucky has been a leader in developing a hemp industry and McConnell has long been a prominent booster. He teamed with Democratic Sen. Roy Wyden of Oregon earlier this year to ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture to quickly finish regulations allowing the industry to operate.
Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death and disease in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While cigarette smoking among middle school and high school students has been declining for seven years, e-cigarette use has soared. More than 20 percent of high schoolers vaped on a monthly basis in 2018.
The Food and Drug Administration last year proposed reducing the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, which would reduce their addictiveness and harm to public health.