Nearly everyone who smokes started when they were kids or young adults. In Kentucky, smoking kills 8,900 people and racks up $1.92 billion in health care expenditures every year. If we can find effective ways to keep our kids from becoming addicted to tobacco, we have a shot at significantly reducing the heavy price we all pay in illness, death and extra taxes tied to Kentucky’s high rates of tobacco use.

Strong tobacco 21 laws, which raise the legal sale age for tobacco products to 21 and include meaningful penalties on retailers for violations, are a promising strategy to substantially reduce youth tobacco use. That’s why we support strong tobacco 21 policies, including the Tobacco-Free Youth Act filed by Sens. Mitch McConnell and Tim Kaine in the U.S. Senate in May. We’re encouraged that Majority Leader McConnell has made tobacco 21 a top priority.

A March 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine found that, while tobacco 21 laws directly affect those who are 18 to 20 years old, the largest proportionate reduction in the initiation of tobacco use will be among adolescents ages 15 to 17. Overall the report concluded, raising the national age to 21 would immediately improve adolescent health, decrease smoking by 12 percent nationwide and prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

A key reason tobacco 21 works is that most youth get tobacco products from friends and family members, rather than purchasing the products themselves. It’s much more common for adolescents and teens to hang out with those who are at or near their own age, than to have friends who are 21 or older. Thus, raising the legal sale age for tobacco products to 21 cuts off a major social source of tobacco for adolescents and teens.

It’s important that the federal government and states actively enforce tobacco 21 age restrictions by ensuring retailer compliance to decrease the availability of retail tobacco to youth. That’s going to require an increase in enforcement funding for Kentucky, and we support that as well.

In addition, e-cigarettes, often called vapes, must be included among the age-restricted tobacco products, as they are in the McConnell/Kaine bill. E-cigs are the most popular tobacco product for youth, and both the United States and Kentucky are in the middle of an epidemic of youth e-cigarette use. From 2016 to 2018, e-cigarette use among Kentucky middle schoolers nearly doubled and among high schoolers more than doubled. Not only does e-cigarette use pose immediate dangers for youth because of the chemicals inhaled into the lungs and the high nicotine content that can impair their still-developing brains, e-cigarette use also has been shown to lead to smoking combustible cigarettes and it can prime young brains for other addictions. E-cigarettes are an unproven means to get smokers to completely switch and at the same time they have led to a whole new generation of youth addicted to nicotine.

Every extra day it takes to get a national tobacco 21 law passed is an opportunity for thousands more kids to access a tobacco product that can damage their developing brains now and cause addiction and debilitating health issues throughout their lives. For the sake of our kids, we urge Congress to pass this law.

Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky
Kentucky School Boards Association
Kentucky Youth Advocates
Kentucky Cancer Foundation
American Heart Association
American Lung Association
American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network
Drug Free Clubs of America
Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce
Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky Behavioral Health
Kentucky Voices for Health
Kentucky Dental Association