McConnell plan to hike smoking age could be win for tobacco companies

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s push to raise the legal smoking age to 21 sounds like a victory for public health. But anti-tobacco advocates fear McConnell and the tobacco industry might use the bill to block other, more proven measures to reduce youth smoking.

McConnell pledged last week to introduce legislation to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21, calling it a “top priority” when the Senate returns from recess in late April. The move drew surprising enthusiasm from cigarette and vaping manufacturers, who pledged to throw their considerable weight behind his initiative.

But in some states, legislation to raise the age to buy tobacco-related products has supplanted flavor bans, which would cut into the profits of industry giants like Altria and Juul. The industry-backed bills also have halted broader pushes to ban menthol cigarettes or raise state taxes enough to dissuade potential smokers. Some would even exempt tobacco products that aren’t yet on the market.

“They are turning these Tobacco 21 bills into Trojan horses,” said John Schachter, director of state communications for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “The industry is positioning Tobacco 21 as the only thing that needs to be done on tobacco prevention,” but “Tobacco 21 needs to be a complement” to other measures, he said.

A McConnell spokesperson said that the majority leader’s bill is still being drafted and will be introduced next month. She did not respond when asked whether McConnell would back higher taxes and flavor bans.

Tobacco and e-cigarette giants like Altria have lobbied against raising taxes on tobacco and banning flavored products popular with teens, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said would have a bigger effect in reducing teen smoking and vaping.

When family medicine professor Rob Crane heard about McConnell’s announcement, “the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I said, ‘This is really terrible,’” said Crane, a professor at Ohio State University and president of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation.

Crane fears McConnell’s bill will dovetail with tobacco lobbying, which has aimed to alter state bills by inserting weak enforcement mechanisms, prohibiting local restrictions on flavored products and heading off increased taxes.

Twelve states have raised the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21. But some of them ignore antismoking measures that advocates say are most effective.

An Arkansas bill, for example, prevents cities and counties from enacting stricter regulations such as bans on e-cigarette flavors, tougher enforcement or raising the tobacco purchasing age.

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