Kudos to McConnell for his T21 bill

Jeff Neal

It isn't often that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell splits with conservatives from Kentucky.

Earlier this week, he did -- and with good reason.

McConnell announced he would introduce a bill in May that would raise the federal minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21.

"The McConnell Bill" will cover all tobacco products, including e-cigs.

Keep in mind that in the last session of the Kentucky General Assembly, a "T21" bill was defeated.

So what's a Kentucky conservative and a strong tobacco ally doing tinkering with tobacco sales in a very pro-tobacco state?

I would call it the right thing.

"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 a statement. "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."

The bill might improve the awful health statistics right here in the Commonwealth. Kentucky has some of the highest cancer rates in the country. From 2012-16, lung cancer made up 66 percent of all cancer deaths in the state, according to the American Cancer Society.

A 2015 National Academy of Medicine study concluded that increasing the minimum buying age would reduce the number of teens who get hooked on nicotine and therefore save lives.

A spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said while the group "strongly supports" raising the minimum tobacco buying age, it wants to "make sure it is a strong bill that is free of special interest provisions that benefit the tobacco industry."

But the tobacco industry seems to be on board with McConnell's legislation.

Howard Willard, the CEO for tobacco giant Altria, started running "T21" ads earlier this month in several large newspapers.

"Altria strongly supports raising the legal age of purchase for all tobacco products, including e-vapor, to 21. This is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates. Now is the time to move to 21 and we welcome Senator McConnell's leadership on this important issue," Willard said Thursday in a statement.

Despite the surge toward moving the needle on this issue, McConnell might get some pushback from conservatives. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., recently blasted the Food and Drug Administration for pursuing a ban on menthol cigarettes.

"I hope my legislation will earn strong, bipartisan support in the Senate," McConnell said. "I'm confident many of my colleagues will agree that protecting our young people from starting tobacco use at an early age can have remarkable, long-term health benefits for Kentucky and the country."

Congratulations Sen. McConnell on a job well done, and for correcting another blunder by our state lawmakers. This bill is certainly one that indicates you are looking out for the best interests of your constituents.

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.