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An unlikely pair of senators is teaming up - their goal, increase the federal age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, represent two of the largest tobacco-producing states in the country. But they say a youth tobacco epidemic is too large to ignore. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell has the story.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: For nearly 30 years, Mitch McConnell has been one of the most reliable defenders in the tobacco industry's corner. He worked to keep regulations, taxes and fees at bay and accepted generous campaign donations from their largest companies. But right now McConnell is helping lead the charge to raise the federal tobacco purchase age for the first time in more than 20 years.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: And the sad reality is that Kentucky has been the home to the highest rates of cancer in the country. We lead the entire nation in the percentage of cancer cases tied directly to smoking.
SNELL: For years, teen smoking was on the decline - until tobacco companies introduced new flavored products and e-cigarettes that found a foothold among kids. A 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control found that more than 63% of middle and high school tobacco users used flavored tobacco in the past month. Even leading tobacco companies are rallying behind the bill. McConnell and his co-sponsor, Senator Tim Kaine, say the epidemic is something they cannot ignore.
TIM KAINE: We have very different views on a lot of issues. We're both from states where tobacco is - has been and is really important. But what's more important than tobacco, by far, is the health of our young people. So it's the spike in youth smoking that I think has turned this into a matter of urgency.
SNELL: The unusual pairing of McConnell, Kaine and the tobacco industry behind a bill to regulate tobacco sales is raising a lot of eyebrows in Washington, particularly because it includes a provision that would require states to pass their own separate laws to match the federal age requirement. If they don't, they risk losing federal substance abuse funds. Kaine says they want to make sure the law is actually enforced.
KAINE: If there's a federal law, like a federal immigration law, well, state and local officials don't enforce federal laws. And so if the only law that changes with respect to tobacco is a federal age to 21, that will be enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But it won't be enforced by state and local health officials.
SNELL: So far, a dozen states and over 100 localities have already moved to 21. Still, groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids say they're worried the McConnell-Kaine bill could give the tobacco industry an opening to carve out loopholes for certain products or marketing to kids. Campaign President Matthew Myers says he's willing to work with McConnell and Kaine, but he recently threw his support behind a bill that simply increases the age to 21 - no other requirements.
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MATTHEW MYERS: We urge Congress to pass this strong legislation and to reject any effort whatsoever by special interests to try to either water down this law or to add provisions to this law that would provide more protection for the tobacco companies than for our nation's youth.
SNELL: That bill's lead sponsor, Senator Brian Schatz, says he doesn't question that McConnell and Kaine have good intentions.
BRIAN SCHATZ: I just don't trust the tobacco industry to operate in good faith at the state legislative level. And that's the difference between these two pieces of legislation.
SNELL: The Hawaii Democrat says there is still room to work with McConnell. But for now, he can't support what Kaine and McConnell are doing. Still, it's a big deal when the majority leader makes any legislation a priority, and some senators are holding out hope that his support could help make the tobacco legislation part of a broader health bill that could be one of the few achievements of an otherwise nearly paralyzed Congress.
Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.