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McConnell, a tobacco-state Republican, unveils bill to raise age to buy tobacco

ABC News logo ABC News 5/20/2019
John Barrasso, John Thune, Mitch McConnell, Joni Ernst are posing for a picture: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell answers questions during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, May 14, 2019. © J. Scott Applewhite/AP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell answers questions during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, May 14, 2019.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, from the tobacco state of Kentucky, on Monday unveiled federal legislation to raise the minimum age to purchase e-cigarettes and all other tobacco products in the U.S. from 18 to 21.

The Tobacco-Free Youth Act is a measure that McConnell and his Democratic co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, say is aimed at reducing teen use of e-cigarettes, which the duo call a “public health crisis.”

(MORE: Walgreens, Rite Aid raise minimum age to buy tobacco to 21)

a man looking at the camera: In this July 16, 2015 file photo, Bruce Schillin exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at the Vapor Spot, in Sacramento, California. © Rich Pedroncelli/AP, FILE In this July 16, 2015 file photo, Bruce Schillin exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at the Vapor Spot, in Sacramento, California.

“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,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday.

Kentucky and Virginia have the highest rates of death caused by smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC reports that from 2017 to 2018, youth e-cigarette users increased by 1.5 million, with more than 1 in 4 high school students having reported using a tobacco product in the past 30 days.

Kentucky is the nation’s second-largest tobacco producer.

“Now, I recognize I might seem like an unusual candidate to lead this charge. I’m the senior senator from Kentucky. I’ve consistently stood up for all Kentucky farmers, including our tobacco farmers. I championed the tobacco buyout back in 2004,” McConnell said.

“But actually, my long experience with this subject and my commitment to farm families are part of what’s convinced me that now is the right time to do this,” he said.

McConnell said on Monday that enacting this legislation is one of his “highest priorities.” As the keeper of the keys on the Senate floor, it’s all but certain his legislation will get a floor vote in the near future after it is vetted and debated in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

(MORE: Sen. Mitch McConnell wants to raise age to buy tobacco products)

Senator Tim Kaine responds to Sen. Al Franken's decision to resign amid sexual misconduct allegations, Dec. 7, 2017, in Washington. © ABC News Senator Tim Kaine responds to Sen. Al Franken's decision to resign amid sexual misconduct allegations, Dec. 7, 2017, in Washington.

Kaine is a member of that committee.

“Today, we are coming together to side with young people’s health. With this bipartisan legislation, Senator McConnell and I are working to address one of the most significant public health issues facing our nation today,” Kaine, who signed a law banning smoking in bars and restaurants as Virginia’s governor, said in a statement provided to ABC News.

“Raising the tobacco age to 21 is a critical part of our efforts to improve public health and keep tobacco products out of schools and away from our children,” he said.

a hand holding a toothbrush: A smoker snuffs out a cigarette at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., June 22, 2012. © Rich Pedroncelli/AP, FILE A smoker snuffs out a cigarette at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., June 22, 2012.

The federal law would make it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21 years old in all states.

Members of the military would also have to be 21 to purchase tobacco products.

McConnell had reportedly planned to exempt service members from his legislation, but after talking with constituents and public health advocates, he believes there should be no exceptions, according to Kentucky newspaper Lexington Herald-Leader.

“We’ve had plenty of evidence ... that this is a public health problem of significant proportions,” McConnell told the Lexington Herald-Leader, adding that he doesn’t think the military should be “treated differently on a public health issue.”

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a non-profit advocacy organization, told ABC News they are currently reviewing the legislation.

"We are currently reviewing this legislation to determine whether it meets our criteria for a strong bill ..." the group said in a statement to ABC News.

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