WASHINGTON D.C. (WEHT) – US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is introducing legislation to make 21 the new minimum age for purchasing tobacco products.
Sen. McConnell delivered these remarks on the Senate floor:
“Today, I am introducing federal legislation to make 21 the new minimum age for purchasing any tobacco product, anywhere in the United States. Let me say that again. A new age, nationwide, for purchasing anything classified as a tobacco product – cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapor products, and everything else. It shouldn’t be 18 any longer. It should be 21. And this legislation will make that happen.
Now, I recognize I might seem like an unusual candidate to lead this charge. I’m the senior senator from Kentucky. I’ve consistently stood up for all Kentucky farmers, including our tobacco farmers. I championed the tobacco buyout back in 2004. But actually, my long experience with this subject and my commitment to farm families are part of what’s convinced me that now is the right time to do this. So I’d like to say a few words about why.
Now, tobacco has been deeply intertwined in our nation’s history from the very beginning. Native Americans grew it and used it before European explorers ever arrived. John Rolfe – the famous settler who later married Pocahontas – kick-started Virginia’s export economy using foreign tobacco seeds in 1612. By the eve of the Revolution, tobacco was a major export and a huge part of the colonies’ prosperity. Many tobacco farmers were energetic early backers of independence.
George Washington grew tobacco at Mount Vernon – at first, as his primary crop. In Benjamin Franklin’s newspapers, some of the earliest ads for American tobacco ran right alongside the essays urging Americans to stand up for freedom. Several million pounds of tobacco were actually used as collateral to help secure the loans they needed from France. Years later, Lewis and Clark used it as a peace offering to the native tribes they met heading west. And, like too many other parts of early American history, tobacco’s development was closely linked with the sin of slavery. So tobacco has been part of this country right from the start.
So much so, in fact, that right here in the U.S. Capitol, artisans replaced the traditional designs in many of the Roman-style columns and chiseled American tobacco leaves in their place. Right here in this chamber, we still have some old spittoons. We used to have Senate snuff boxes filled on the taxpayers’ dime. And the residue on the floors used to be so considerable that Charles Dickens warned fellow visitors not to pick up anything they dropped unless they had a pair of gloves on.
One of the Senators that Dickens actually admired most from that visit was Henry Clay. And, befitting the Commonwealth of Kentucky and our own rich history with the crop, that legendary Kentuckian was also a legendary tobacco enthusiast. When the first settlers came over the Appalachians into what is now Kentucky, tobacco offered the perfect opportunity to jump-start their new lives. A pocketful of seeds was enough for a down payment on a new, economically-secure future for your family.
Kentucky had fertile soil. We had favorable summers. We had inland waterways and access to the Mississippi for shipping. Before long, burley tobacco was a staple crop for literally tens of thousands of Kentucky farms. For a time, we led even Virginia and North Carolina as the number-one tobacco state. Generations of farmers, even if they weren’t primarily tobacco growers, would plant a little corner of it to help float the rest of their operation.
Farming tobacco put shoes on kids’ feet. It put dinner on the table. For many in Kentucky, tobacco made the American dream possible. It’s central pillar of state history. In fact, in the early 1900s, there was literally an armed conflict called the Black Patch War that revolved around tobacco prices. Farmers against farmers. We’re talking about beatings. Horse-whippings. Barns were burned. Eventually, martial law was declared in part of Kentucky. We’re talking about neighbor-on-neighbor violence that was reminiscent of the Civil War – all over tobacco prices.
The conflict was actually memorialized in the book Night Rider, the first novel by Robert Penn Warren, the famous Kentucky-born writer who won multiple Pulitzers and served as U.S. Poet Laureate. A few decades later, in the late 1930s, Senator Alben Barkley, the only other Kentuckian to serve as Majority Leader, set up a top-down quota system that got Washington D.C. heavily involved in the tobacco market to try and provide price special assurance for farmers. So when I first arrived in the Senate in 1985, more than two-thirds of Kentucky’s farmers grew some tobacco and it accounted for almost half of the value of all the agricultural production in the state.
But of course, demand for U.S. tobacco has gone down as – among other factors – our knowledge of the health consequences has gone up. Even as early as the late 1800s, when the transition began from all the varied forms of tobacco toward the modern, mass-marketed, mass-produced cigarette industry, there was concern. These concerns went mainstream with the Surgeon General’s report on smoking in the 1960s. And of course our understanding has only grown with more research.
By 2004, these concerns plus foreign competition were making that quota system less of a helpful backstop and more of a stranglehold. So there was interest on all sides in unwinding this archaic system without pulling the rug out from under our growers. I secured the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act, known as the tobacco buyout, which President Bush 43 signed into law. It wound down the special treatment for tobacco while also providing the farmers who had invested heavily in these quotas ten years of buyout payments to ease their transition.
And what’s happened since then has been a really exciting story. Just as Kentucky farmers once led the nation in cultivating tobacco and helped write that important chapter in American history, they are now helping write the next chapter of innovation. We aren’t interested in banning tobacco. We aren’t interested in turning our backs on adults who choose to use these products or pretending we aren’t proud of the Kentuckians who still grow it. But as the market has settled, many of our farmers have seized the opportunity to try new things.
Just a few years before the buyout, almost 30,000 Kentucky farms were still growing tobacco. It still made up about a quarter of all our farmers’ cash receipts statewide. But the 10-year buyout program ended in 2014. These days, instead of 30,000 farms growing tobacco in the Commonwealth, it’s more like 2,600. It still brings in hundreds of millions of dollars, but now it’s only 6 percent of our total receipts from agriculture. Freed from the sunk costs of the quota system, our farmers have been able to participate in a more free market and reap the benefits. In fact, overall cash receipts from agriculture actually set a new record in 2014, the same year the buyout ended.
So I’m proud the 2004 policy I achieved has been a success. Kentucky farmers have taken the ball and run with it. I mentioned that George Washington initially planted a whole lot of tobacco at Mount Vernon, before a variety of factors led him to scale it back and experiment with other things. One of those new crops was hemp. This was all the way back in the 1770s. Well, as usual, George Washington knew what he was doing. Industrial hemp is making a comeback today, and Kentucky farmers asked for help to change outdated federal laws that confused the plant with cannabis and prevented them from exploring the crop.
In 2014, I fought and won for farmers the right to explore hemp through state pilot projects. And in last year’s farm bill, my provision finished the job and made hemp a fully legal commodity nationwide. And now we’re seeing the future take shape right before our eyes. Farmers in 99 of 120 counties are growing hemp. Processors are reporting more than $50 million in gross sales. And this is just one of the new crops our farmers are using to chart new directions and connect Kentucky’s past with its future.
I realize this has been quite a history lesson. But Kentuckians are used to hearing sweeping statements about our tobacco industry from folks outside the state who know none of this history and yet have no problem forming strong opinions. We are proud of our past. We are proud of who we are. But Kentucky farmers don’t want their children to get hooked on tobacco products while they’re in middle school or high school any more than any parents anywhere want that to happen.
Kentucky is proud of what we make. But we also take pride in the health and development of our children. 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. Our state once grew tobacco like none other – and now we’re being hit by the health consequences of tobacco use like none other. And nationwide, we are in the middle of a completely new public health epidemic that is really threatening our progress in youth tobacco use: the use of e-cigarettes and vaping. This spike has been concentrated in teenagers, and not just 18-year-olds.
Moms and dads across the country have seen their middle and high schoolers take up this new habit and start out down a deadly path that our society had previously spent decades working hard to close down. From 2017 to 2018, high school students’ use of what are classified as tobacco products shot up by nearly 40%. That’s a staggering figure, especially in a single year. And that increase is driven almost entirely by vaping. The brain is still developing at this young age. When teenagers use tobacco, they’re quite literally altering their brain’s chemistry and making it more susceptible to addiction.
Many young vape users aren’t buying the products themselves, but rather sharing them with a friend. And remember, 90% of adult daily smokers say they used their first tobacco product before age 19. Youth vaping is a public health crisis. It’s our responsibility as parents and public servants to do everything we can to keep these harmful products out of high schools and out of youth culture. We need to put the national age of purchase at 21. That’s why I’m introducing this legislation. In recognition of tobacco’s storied past in Kentucky and aware of the threat that all tobacco products pose now and for future generations.
I’m proud to partner on this effort with Senator Tim Kaine, who represents another Commonwealth with a long history of growing tobacco. And I know there is interest from members on both sides of the aisle, including Senators Young, Romney, Schatz, and others. This is not a zero-sum choice between farmers and public health. We can support both. We need to support both. But the health of our children is at stake. That is why I will make enacting this legislation one of my highest priorities. And I look forward to working with all of my colleagues to make it happen.”