McConnell proposes moving tobacco age limit to 21

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By Amanda Kelly, Staff Writer



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While looking at products for his e-cigarette at Tobacco Mart in Dry Ridge, 22-year-old John Fischer said he’s trying to cut back on smoking. 

“I never really thought I would be a smoker because my grandfather smoked and I didn’t like it, but, I mean, it just takes that one, you know what I mean,” Fischer said. “Age doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it. Someone could just have some cigarettes and you try one.”

No one handed Fischer his first cigarette at the age of 16. 

“I picked up a pack of cigarettes I found on the ground and tried smoking,” Fischer said. “Lucky day, I guess. Or really unlucky day.”

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) filed a federal bill to increase the legal age limit from 18 to 21 to buy tobacco products in response to the rise of E-cigarette use amongst young people. 

“Youth vaping is a public health crisis,” McConnell said during a floor speech while introducing the bill. “It’s our responsibility as parents and public servants to do everything we can to keep these harmful products out of high schools and out of youth culture. We need to put the national age of purchase at 21.”

While he only smokes a few cigarettes a week, Fischer said he’s been smoking with a Juul now. Juul is a brand of e-cigarette that packages nicotine salts from leaf tobacco into single-use cartridges called pods. The pods come in different flavors, ranging from American tobacco to menthol to fruit and candy flavors. 

“I feel like Juul may be worse honestly,” Fischer said. “It hits my lungs harder. The thing about vapes, you can hit them whenever you want. They’re not restrictive like cigarettes.”

From a different generation of Grant Countians, 46-year-old Donovan King said he picked up smoking at the same age Fischer started smoking. 

“I just picked them up as everyone else was,” King said. “Back then, all of us smoked. We were all farm boys that grew up raising tobacco. Everyone smoked in one way, shape or form.”

Kentucky’s history with tobacco production drove the economy for the state’s farmers as the state nearly amassed 30,000 farmers at the time the federal tobacco program ended in 2004. Currently, the state has 2,600 tobacco farmers. 

“Our state once grew tobacco like none other — and now we’re being hit by the health consequences of tobacco like none other,” McConnell said while recently presenting the bill. 

While 23 percent of Grant County adults smoke, many people started smoking before they even were even legally allowed to buy tobacco products. 

“This bipartisan bill is a hedge of protection around the young people of the Commonwealth, and the nation more broadly, as it will be instrumental in stemming the epidemic of vaping that is afflicting children as young as middle school age,” said Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Dr. Terry Brooks in a press release. “And these harmful products are packed with nicotine, which is highly addictive and can cause lasting damage to the developing brain. Increasing the minimum sale age for all tobacco products to 21 offers a commonsense way to keep harmful tobacco products out of reach of our kids and prevent life-long addictions to nicotine.”

According to Kentucky Incentives for Prevention’s statewide trend data taken on youth substance abuse, mental health and school safety in 2018, 13.8 percent of Kentucky high school seniors reported smoking a cigarette at least once in the past 30 days. Although that percentage has deceased from 29.4 percent in 2010 for regular cigarettes, vaping or e-cigarette usage has steadily increased. In 2014, when vaping/E-cigs were added to the survey, 17.3 percent of seniors reported using them at least once in the past 30 days. In 2018, 26.7 percent of high school seniors have vaped in the last 30 days. 

Although a bill proposing the same age limit raise failed to pass last year after opponents of the bill claimed it would hurt the tobacco industry, similar legislation in Virginia and 13 other states is backed by Altria Group. Altria Group recently bought 35 percent of Juul Labs, the company behind the most popular e-cigarette brand. 

In the most recent Kentucky General Assembly legislative session, House Bill 11 will ban the use of tobacco, e-cigarettes and vaping devices on public school campuses, in school vehicles and at school activities beginning with the 2020-21 school year. 

However, school districts would have up to three years to opt out of the ban should they choose. The individual districts not opting out will also be able to set the penalties for violating the ban.

Both Grant County Schools and Williamstown Independent Schools are tobacco-free campuses. 

HB 11 goes into effect June 27, 2019.

Williamstown City Council passed a smoke-free ordinance in 2018 banning smoking in indoor and outdoor public areas within city limits, including restaurants, businesses and outdoor seating areas. The ordinance went into effect Jan. 1, 2019. 

Despite the measures taken to curb smoking amongst youth and adults, King doesn’t think increasing the age limit to buy tobacco products is going to deter youth from picking up the vice. 

“Taking it up to 21 won’t deter it,” King said. “It doesn’t deter them now (at 18). If you’re not mature enough to smoke or drink, how are you mature enough to go get shot at or shoot at something? How mature are you if you murder someone to get the death penalty? That’s crazy.”