Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing a new bill that would block all tobacco and vape purchases for Americans under 21 years old, according to an announcement today that was reported by Bloomberg.
In a statement today, McConnell presented the bill as a response to widespread public health risks posed by teen vaping. “For some time, I’ve been hearing from the parents who are seeing an unprecedented spike in vaping among their teenage children,” McConnell said. “In addition, we all know people who started smoking at a young age and who struggled to quit as adults. Unfortunately it’s reaching epidemic levels around the country.” McConnell says he will look to the 11 states that already have Tobacco 21 laws on the books for ideas.
But vaping companies don’t seem concerned. Juul, which sold a 35 percent stake to tobacco giant Altria for $12.8 billion last year, applauded McConnell for today’s announcement. “JUUL Labs is committed to eliminating combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in the world and to accomplish that goal, we must restrict youth usage of vapor products,” Juul’s CEO Kevin Burns said in an emailed statement. “Tobacco 21 laws fight one of the largest contributors to this problem – sharing by legal-age peers – and they have been shown to dramatically reduce youth usage rates.”
That support might have to do with Juul’s issues with the Food and Drug Administration. Over the past year, Juul has come under the FDA’s fire for its massive popularity among young people. So supporting a higher minimum age could help its image and take some of the regulatory pressure off. From an industry perspective, the move is fairly low risk since the product is already embedded in the population, and people under age 21 may already be addicted, says Kathleen Hoke, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “We can change this age to 21 but we’re going to have to work extraordinarily hard at the state and local level to actually get cigarettes or vape products or chew out of the hands of the 18 to 20 year olds,” she says.
At least on the surface, raising the minimum legal age for smoking aligns McConnell with public health advocates who have been pushing for raising the smoking (and vaping) age to 21. The goal is to keep kids from starting a lifelong nicotine addiction — since some 90 percent of current smokers took their first drags on a cigarette by age 18, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say. A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine projected there would be a 12 percent drop in smoking by the year 2100 if the legal age for buying tobacco products were increased immediately.
But the bill’s success will depend on how it’s crafted. Rob Crane, professor of family medicine at The Ohio State University and president of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, is skeptical that it will really hold tobacco retailers responsible for selling to people who are underage. From the more than 450 cities and counties that have passed Tobacco 21 laws, “what we have found that does work is when you make local health departments under civil law do the enforcement,” he says. “For a rogue retailer that keeps on selling, there’s a risk of license suspension.”
But if the law winds up penalizing convenience store clerks who sell vapes and tobacco products to kids, the retailer who’s profiting gets off scot-free, he says. In the end, Crane is skeptical of the motivations behind the bill, no matter what form it takes. “This is all a PR move to keep Juul out of the hot seat from the FDA.”