Bill to restrict tobacco use to 21 fails in Kentucky

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Lawmakers in one of the largest tobacco-producing states in the country have rejected a proposal to raise the smoking age to 21.

The Kentucky Senate Agriculture Committee voted down a bill on Monday that would have banned all tobacco products for anyone under 21, prompting a standing ovation from many who attended the hearing.

“Where I come from, tobacco is still king,” said Republican state Sen. Stan Humphries, a tobacco farmer who voted against the bill.

Tobacco companies have often opposed efforts to restrict smoking and other tobacco products from people older than 18, the age Americans can register to vote and join the military. But recently, the industry has bet its future on e-cigarettes and other vapor products that have drawn the ire of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for their multiflavored varieties that appeal to children.

Federal officials link the popularity of those products to youth smoking rates, which have stopped declining for the first time in decades.

In December, Altria — one of the world’s largest tobacco companies — purchased a $13 billion stake in Juul, a purchase that valued the vaping company more than Ford Motor Co. or Delta Air Lines Inc. This year, Altria has campaigned to raise the smoking age to 21, an effort that has been most pronounced in tobacco-producing states. Last week, traditional tobacco power Virginia became the seventh state to raise the smoking age to 21.

“Putting tobacco on par with alcohol makes sense and we do hope that doing that will also persuade policy makers to approach tobacco regulation a bit more reasonably,” Altria Vice President David Fernandez told Kentucky lawmakers on Monday.

Bill sponsor Republican Steve Meredith argued for the bill for health reasons, saying tobacco-related illnesses cost Kentucky $2 billion each year, including $600 million from Medicaid, the government-funded health coverage program for poor and disabled people.

Committee chairman Paul Hornback, a Republican, tried an economic argument, warning the FDA could put Kentucky “out of the tobacco business” with its potential rulings impacting the sale of e-cigarettes and other vapor products because of concerns about their impacts on youth smoking rates.

But it wasn’t enough to convince enough of the Republican-dominated committee to approve it.

“To put (tobacco) on a level playing field with alcohol makes no sense to me at all,” Humphries said. “I never saw anybody smoking a cigarette cross a double yellow line, hit somebody head-on and kill them.”

While Monday’s vote was a setback for anti-smoking advocates, Hornback indicated lawmakers could try to vote on the bill again before adjourning next month. But it appears the bill, or any other tobacco-prevention bill, would have a tough time passing the state legislature.

Republican Rep. Kim Moser has been trying for weeks to pass a bill that would outlaw all tobacco products at public schools or school-sponsored events, which would include high school football and basketball games. School boards in 74 out of 173 districts have approved similar bans, which account for about 58 percent of students.

But after some initial support, the bill has stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

“There is considerable opposition to that bill,” Republican House Speaker David Osborne said. “Kentucky is traditionally a state that is pro tobacco. I think many of those traditional areas of tobacco production are just against, or are reluctant to take on additional regulation.”

Friday, a group of health, education and business groups sent a letter to lawmakers asking them to vote on the bill, known as “tobacco-free schools.”

“Please do not sacrifice the health of all of our school children to the convenience of fewer than a quarter of Kentucky adults who use tobacco,” the groups urged, according to a letter signed by the American Heart Association, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and the Kentucky School Boards Association.