At first whiff, a proposal to raise the legal smoking age to 21 nationally sounds like a good one for getting young people out of the tobacco market. So why are the tobacco industry and its most powerful friend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, so enthusiastically behind it?
Health advocates fear it’s because the idea is being used to short-circuit better proposals to stem underage smoking and vaping, like sales-tax increases and flavored-vapor bans. Based on experiences with similar legislation at the state level, some health advocates are labeling the bill a Trojan horse that could ultimately serve the tobacco and vaping industries’ agendas without having any real impact on underage smoking.
Those who genuinely seek to address the real problem of teen smoking and vaping should hold out for a broader package that includes detailed enforcement mechanisms for the legal age increase, among other elements. One good idea shouldn’t be allowed to block better ones.
McConnell, representing the tobacco state of Kentucky, announced plans in April to introduce major legislation raising the national minimum age for all tobacco products from 18 to 21 to address what he called “an epidemic of nicotine consumption either through cigarettes or through vaping” among young people. He called the measure a “top priority.”
The tobacco industry is strongly on board. But it isn’t overly cynical or paranoid to suggest, as health advocates are now doing, that this isn’t the sea change it might appear for a nicotine-addiction industry that historically has targeted underage consumers.
A clear pattern is evident in states that have already passed laws raising the minimum tobacco purchasing age to 21: The industry gets behind the measure, making sure it gets passed with minimal enforcement mechanisms for that higher age. The result is that it has no real impact on kids buying tobacco. Then the industry stands firm against more effective measures — like tax hikes and flavored-vapor bans — on the argument that they’ve already addressed the issue.
Is it unfair to suggest that McConnell, who has long demonstrated his dedication to both the tobacco industry and Machiavellian politics, is capable of such disingenuous maneuvering? Politico tried to find out by asking his office, after the new legislation was widely announced, whether McConnell would also be open to a flavored-vapor ban. Suddenly, his office wasn’t answering questions.
Rules against underage purchases — particularly rules that, as in some states, aren’t strongly enforced — won’t cut youth tobacco use nearly as effectively as pricing products out of range of young pockets, and cutting off the wide array of flavors that has made vaping so popular among kids.
If McConnell and his tobacco-industry patrons are serious about addressing the problem, they should make those ideas part of the mix. Otherwise, this hollow legislation should be seen for what it is.