Cigarettes are arranged for a photograph in Tiskilwa, Illinois, U.S. (Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

McConnell Urges Raising Tobacco Purchase Age to 21

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he wants Congress to raise the minimum age for tobacco products, including vaping devices, to 21 from 18 nationwide, seeking to curb teenage use the U.S. Surgeon General described as an “epidemic.”

Speaking at an event Thursday in his home state of Kentucky, the second biggest tobacco producer after North Carolina, the Republican leader said he plans to introduce legislation in May and expects it will get bipartisan support in the Senate.

McConnell said he is motivated partly by the growing popularity of vaping products among young people, which studies have shown can affect brain development and yield higher rates of addiction to other drugs.

“This will cover all tobacco products including vaping devices,” McConnell said at a news event sponsored by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. He added that the legislation would require retailers, like under the current system, to verify that a tobacco purchaser is old enough to buy the product.

Tobacco stocks fell on the news. Altria Group Inc. dropped as much as 5.2 percent, while Philip Morris International Inc. -- which doesn’t sell directly in the U.S. -- declined as much as 3.3 percent in New York trading. British American Tobacco Plc fell as much as 3.5 percent in London.

Teenage Vaping

“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 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.”

McConnell noted that 11 states have enacted laws that already raise the purchasing age to 21. He said his legislation will be patterned after those laws, and include an exemption for military personnel.

“I think this is a very positive development for public health,” said former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who stepped down from the agency earlier this year after leading a push to restrict sales of e-cigarette and tobacco products. “If you raise the legal age out of the high-school age set, you make it harder for high school kids to get their hands on tobacco products.”

Industry Support

Altria Group Inc., the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, has supported efforts to raise the legal age of purchase to 21 for all tobacco products, and Howard Willard, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer praised McConnell’s move. Altria has a $12.8 billion stake in Juul Labs Inc., which makes the vape device most popular with teens. Juul requires people who buy its products on its website to be 21.

“This is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates,” he said in a statement. “Now is the time to move to 21 and we welcome Senator McConnell’s leadership on this important issue.”

Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns also commended McConnell for the measure.

“JUUL Labs is committed to eliminating combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in the world and to accomplish that goal, we must restrict youth usage of vapor products,” Burns said in an emailed statement.

While Philip Morris International Inc. doesn’t directly sell tobacco or vaping products in the U.S., it’s currently seeking authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to sell its “heat-not-burn” product IQOS in the U.S.

Prevention

“We’re very focused on youth smoking prevention and very supportive of initiatives to prevent tobacco or any kind of nicotine from getting into the hands of kids,” Philip Morris Chief Financial Officer Martin King said in a phone interview after the company reported earnings Thursday that showed cigarette volumes, which have been broadly declining for years across the industry, were flat for Philip Morris in the first quarter.

British American Tobacco Plc, the maker of Camel and American Spirit, wasn’t immediately available to comment.

“This shouldn’t be a surprise,” Bonnie Herzog, a Wells Fargo analyst, said in a note to clients, noting that Altria requested this measure. “A number of states have already done this. In our view, this should alleviate some of the FDA pressure on e-vapor/JUUL for underage usage.”

If McConnell’s proposal is subjected to open debate on the Senate floor, that could open the opportunity for others to try to further regulate tobacco products if they can gain enough backing to amend his plan.

In addition to the 11 states that have already increased the tobacco purchase age, 450 municipalities also restrict sales to those 21 and older, Stefanie Miller, an analyst at Height Capital Markets, said in a note.

“We view introduction of Tobacco 21 policy as a low-hanging fruit way for someone like Majority Leader McConnell to demonstrate to public health advocates that he is taking the youth tobacco use issue seriously,” Miller wrote.

Miller said she expects Democrats to try to attach provisions to the legislation that would be unpalatable to most Republicans, including banning menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes.

McConnell’s announcement came shortly after Attorney General William Barr spoke with reporters in Washington about the redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Democrats criticized Barr’s presentation of the probe’s findings as an unnecessarily political interpretation.

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