Tobacco-Free Kids Statement on McConnell-Kaine Bill to Raise the Tobacco Age to 21 Nationwide

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
May 23, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids strongly supports raising the tobacco age to 21 nationwide.

We commend Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) for introducing another bipartisan bill to raise the tobacco sales age to 21. We fully support the provisions of this bill that establish a national tobacco age of 21. Appropriately, this bill prohibits tobacco sales to anyone under 21 without exemption, and it retains existing federal penalties on retailers who sell to underage buyers, not on young people who have already been victimized by the tobacco industry.

However, we urge removal of a provision in this bill that requires each state to pass a law raising the tobacco age to 21 (in addition to the federal law) and puts at risk needed federal substance abuse block grant funds if a state doesn’t do so. While we encourage states to pass strong Tobacco 21 laws, given recent tobacco industry behavior, it is highly likely that this provision will be used by the tobacco companies to pass laws that weaken state and local efforts to reduce tobacco use.

In the past year, tobacco companies in a number of states have sought to include special interest provisions in Tobacco 21 bills that block localities from taking additional actions to reduce youth tobacco use, such as prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products. We are concerned that requiring states to pass their own Tobacco 21 laws, especially with the threat of losing substance abuse funds, would provide the tobacco industry with both the opportunity and the leverage to add special interest provisions that harm kids and public health. It is well documented that the industry has sought to include such provisions in state Tobacco 21 legislation, as recently reported by The New York Times and other media.

It is important to note that, even without this provision in the McConnell-Kaine bill, states would remain free to enact their own laws raising the tobacco age. We strongly encourage states to pass strong laws that do not preempt local authority and provide for additional enforcement and penalties on retailers. States should have these debates without the threat of losing federal substance abuse funds hanging over them, especially at a time when these funds are critically needed to address the opioid epidemic.

We also want to reiterate that Tobacco 21 legislation should be part of a comprehensive effort to address the youth e-cigarette epidemic that includes cracking down on flavored tobacco products. The evidence is clear that flavors play a key role in youth initiation and continued use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

We look forward to working with Majority Leader McConnell, Sen. Kaine and other senators – including Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Todd Young (R-IN), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) – to pass strong policies that will reverse the youth e-cigarette epidemic and continue reducing tobacco use in the United States.