Tobacco use is on a long-term downward trend. When a prominent Kentuckian suggests setting a national minimum age for buying tobacco at 21, that helps seal the deal.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last week he plans to introduce legislation next month to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 nationally. It will be one of his top priorities, he said.
McConnell said his bill will cover all tobacco products, including vaping devices.
Only Nixon could go to China, and perhaps only a prominent Republican from Kentucky, a major tobacco-growing state, could bring such a change about. But tobacco production in Kentucky, particularly in rural counties where it was a major industry, has dropped significantly in the past decade. It's also dropped tremendously in West Virginia. Rural areas here once had dozens of tobacco fields, and the weekly auctions at the tobacco warehouse in Huntington were major economic and social events. But the warehouse is gone now, and you seldom see tobacco patches along state and county roads.
Smoking is the nation's leading cause of preventable disease, being responsible for more than 480,000 deaths each year. Smoking-related illness costs to society exceed $300 billion each year, including $170 billion in direct medical costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of 2017, about 34 million American adults smoked cigarettes, and every day about 2,000 youngsters under age 18 light up their first cigarette, the CDC said.
Most states have set a minimum age of 18, while a dozen have raised that to 21, according to the American Lung Association. Alaska and Alabama set their minimum ages at 19. Many cities and counties also have passed local laws establishing the minimum at 21.
Also, many areas are tobacco-free, so nonsmokers don't have to breathe secondhand smoke.
Kentucky lawmakers this year rejected legislation to raise the minimum legal age for buying tobacco products to 21. That bill had support from the tobacco industry, including Altria, one of the world's largest tobacco companies, which bought a $13 billion stake in the vaping company Juul in December.
Altria Vice President David Fernandez said as the legislation was being considered that putting tobacco on par with alcohol "makes sense" and could persuade lawmakers to "approach tobacco regulation a bit more reasonably."
West Virginia legislators also rejected a proposal to increase the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21. Senate Bill 348 received bipartisan support in that chamber, but it died in the House of Delegates' Health and Human Resources Committee as the session ended.
That inaction came despite a statement from state health officer Dr. Cathy Slemp that West Virginia loses about 4,300 people a year to tobacco-related illnesses and has some of the highest smoking rates in the country.
"What this does is actually allows you to gradually over time reduce the rate of tobacco use in the state," Slemp said, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "So it's very little cost upfront because our 18- to 21-year-olds actually purchase a small amount of tobacco."
That's the key right there. If we can prevent young people from picking up the habits of smoking, chewing or vaping, in the long run use will decline and overall health will improve.
It's a shame that the Legislature didn't act when it had a bill in hand. It's another shame that it will take Congress to enact what West Virginia and Kentucky should have.