FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers missed the chance Tuesday to combat chronic health risks by failing to consider raising the age for purchasing tobacco and e-cigarettes, public health advocates in this major tobacco-producing state said.
The proposals had been floated as amendments to a bill that would set up a way for students to anonymously report concerns about vaping at public schools. Vaping is an electronic form of smoking. The amendments would have increased the state’s smoking age to 21 and banned people under 21 from purchasing e-cigarettes and other vapor products.
The amendments were withdrawn at the start of the Kentucky Senate’s debate on the measure, which later passed without the tougher age restrictions on a 33-3 vote. The bill now goes to the House.
One public health advocacy group, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said the Senate’s failure to take up the amendments was a “tragic loss of opportunity to protect Kentucky’s adolescents and teens from the growing epidemic of vaping.”
Senate passage of the bill without the more stringent age restrictions was another setback for anti-smoking advocates. A Senate committee recently voted down a bill that would ban all tobacco products for anyone under 21.
“Whatever stopped the ‘tobacco-21’ bill in the Senate also stopped the progress we could make in preventing another generation of Kentucky kids from becoming addicted to nicotine,” Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said in a statement.
Health advocates vowed to keep pressing for tougher age restrictions and other tobacco-related measures.
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 GOP-controlled Kentucky House.
Republican Sen. Paul Hornback, a prominent tobacco farmer, had floated an amendment to raise the purchasing age to 21 for tobacco products and e-cigarettes and other vapor products.
It was withdrawn Tuesday as the Senate took up the anti-vaping bill. But he said later that he would look for other opportunities to attach the tougher age restrictions to another measure in the final days of this year’s legislative session.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Hornback said in an interview. “I think in the long term, it’s of benefit to the health of our state.”
He also said there’s a risk the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could impose restrictions that “pretty much put us out of the tobacco business completely” unless the industry becomes “more pro-active on trying to cure some of our own problems.”
E-cigarettes and other vaping products have drawn the scrutiny of federal regulators, who blame their flavored varieties for appealing to children and halting what had been a steady decline of youth smoking rates.
Republican Sen. Stephen Meredith had drafted an amendment to ban people under age 21 from purchasing e-cigarettes and other vapor products, but that proposal also was withdrawn.
He said later that he wasn’t sure if there was enough support to attach it to the bill.
During the Senate debate, Meredith said vaping among high school and middle school students has reached a “crisis” level despite a state law requiring a person to be at least 18 to buy the products. He supported the bill setting up a way for students to report concerns about vaping at schools, but said it doesn’t go far enough to combat the problem.
“Time and time again I’ve heard in this chamber and committee meetings that our children are our strongest assets,” he said. “What do you do with your strongest assets? You protect them, you nurture them.”
E-cigarettes contain nicotine, and a 2016 U.S. Surgeon General report concluded youth exposure to nicotine of any kind can cause addiction and harm brain development.
Public health advocates pointed to national data showing that one in five high schoolers and one in 20 middle schoolers use e-cigarettes. In Kentucky, research shows rampant use of e-cigarettes among teens, they said.
“The youth vaping epidemic is sentencing an entirely new generation of young Kentuckians — many of them youth who never would have tried a tobacco product but for kid-friendly flavored e-cigarettes — to a lifetime of tobacco-related illness and early death,” Chandler said.