A bill to raise the legal age for buying all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, in Kentucky from 18 to 21 was pre-filed this month by State Sen. Ralph Alvarado of Winchester. The bill will help Kentucky meet federal law after President Donald Trump signed the Fiscal Year 2020 government agreement Friday, which included the Tobacco-Free Youth Act.

The federal act, which was co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., raises the nationwide minimum age to buy all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping devices, from 18 to 21 and helps protect young people from the dangers of nicotine. The new legal buying age will go into effect after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updates its regulations. The FDA has 180 days to do so, and the change takes effect 90 days later.

Alvarado said his filing comes at a good time with the federal bill’s passage.

“As a doctor, I think I’ve been pretty vocal about trying to improve the health of Kentucky citizens,” he told CNHI Kentucky. “We know from a health care perspective, we have the worst youth smoking rate in the county. We have a vaping epidemic that has addicted more children to nicotine than we had prior. We know those children are now statistically more likely to smoke cigarettes since they’re vaping.”

Both the state and federal policy changes are backed by numerous Kentucky health advocates.

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, along with the Kentucky Medical Association, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Kentucky Youth Advocates, Kentucky School Boards Association, the Kentucky Cancer Foundation, Greater Louisville Inc. and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce have shown support for Alvarado’s bill.

"Sen. McConnell kept his word to prioritize youth health by fostering support for Tobacco 21 in Congress," Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky President and CEO Ben Chandler, who worked closely with McConnell in developing the legislation, said. "This bill is a critical step toward reversing the skyrocketing rates of youth vaping nationwide and in Kentucky. We encourage the Kentucky legislature to demonstrate similar leadership in passing Sen. Alvarado's Tobacco 21 bill quickly this coming year."

Alvarado said the Tobacco 21 bill has floated around the State Capitol for several years and had previously received mixed reviews. However, he believes there’s a renewed interest, especially with Sen. McConnell’s work on the federal level.

“Our children are getting hooked on these vape and tobacco products. There’s a general consensus that we need to do something to help,” he said.

Data released in November show that 6.2 million kids use tobacco, and e-cigarettes are, by far, the most popular product among youth. Nationwide in 2019, 27.5% of high schoolers and 10.5% of middle schoolers vape. Last year, Kentucky youth were already vaping at higher rates than the national averages.

Nearly 90% of adult smokers started before age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Since I introduced my legislation earlier this year to raise the minimum nationwide purchase age for tobacco products from 18 to 21, stories of vaping related illnesses and deaths — especially among young people — have stunned Kentucky and the nation,” McConnell said in a release. “I’m grateful to the communities, the health advocates and my fellow elected officials, including President Trump and Senators Todd Young and Mitt Romney, who have joined Senator Kaine and me to address this urgent crisis and keep these dangerous products away from our children.”

Alvarado’s bill would also remove the status offense for those who purchase the products underage. He said the bill will instead put more pressure on retailers to not sell to underage individuals.

Jonathan Greene is the editor of The Register; follow him on Twitter @jgreeneRR.

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