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 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 make the buy.
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.
"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.
Altria Group Inc., the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, has supported efforts to raise the legal age of purchase to 21 for all tobacco products. 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.
The legislation would likely re-open the Family Smoking and Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, potentially allowing the tobacco industry to seek compromises elsewhere. The act, passed in 2009, gave the FDA oversight of tobacco products.