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U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell is pictured in this Daily Independent file photo. Photo by John Flavell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky has long been one of the nation's leading tobacco producers, said Monday he was introducing bipartisan legislation to raise the minimum smoking age from 18 to 21.

The chamber's top Republican released his proposal at a time when the use of e-cigarettes is growing and underage vaping has soared, raising concerns by health experts. McConnell's measure — Tobacco-Free Youth Act — would apply to tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vapor products.

“In recognition of tobacco’s history in our states and awareness of the threat that all tobacco products pose now and for future generations, we introduced legislation to raise the national age of purchase to 21,” said McConnell, R- Ky., who is introducing the bill with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “We’ve heard from countless parents who have seen the youth vaping crisis firsthand, and together, Senator Kaine and I are addressing this public health crisis head-on. By making it more difficult for tobacco products to end up in the hands of middle school and high school students, we can protect our children and give them the opportunity to grow and develop into healthy adults.

“We’re ready for a national debate about the health of our children, and I look forward to working with my Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass this bill.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2017 to 2018, youth e-cigarette users increased by 1.5 million, with more than one in four high school students having reported using a tobacco product in the past 30 days.

In addition, a report from the Institute of Medicine found that most adult smokers start smoking before age 21 and that increasing the tobacco age to 21 would save lives, improve public health and reduce tobacco initiation among youth.

“Today, we are coming together to side with young people’s health. With this bipartisan legislation, Senator McConnell and I are working to address one of the most significant public health issues facing our nation today,” Kaine said. “Raising the tobacco age to 21 is a critical part of our efforts to improve public health and keep tobacco products out of schools and away from our children.”

Kaine previously signed a law banning smoking in bars and restaurants as Virginia’s governor.

McConnell and Kaine hope their measure will stem the tide of alarming trends by ensuring that states and the federal government raise the purchasing age for all tobacco products to 21. Their bill makes clear that it would be unlawful for retailers to sell tobacco products to anyone younger than 21 and that states may enact laws with higher minimums if they choose.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the bill is a “hedge of protection around the young people of the commonwealth, and the nation more broadly, as it will be instrumental in stemming the epidemic of vaping that is afflicting children as young as middle school age.”

Brooks said increasing the minimal sale age on all tobacco products offers a commonsense way to keep harmful tobacco products out of reach of our kids and prevent life-long addictions to nicotine. He urges Congress to support the bill and leaders in Frankfort to work on aligning Kentucky law to protect more youth from the lasting harms of tobacco use.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Jonathan Greene is the editor of The Register; follow him on Twitter @jgreeneRR.