Sen. Mitch McConnell, left, introduced with another tobacco-state lawmaker, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, a bill that would require retailers to determine that buyers of tobacco products are 21 or older and would allow states to enact laws with higher minimums if they choose.

By Lesley Clark | For the Lexington Herald-Leader

Members of the military would have to be 21 to purchase tobacco products, including vaping devices, under legislation U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced Monday, aiming to extinguish what he calls a “public health crisis” among teenage smokers.

The Kentucky Republican had planned to exempt service members from his push to raise the tobacco purchase age nationwide from 18 to 21, but told The Herald-Leader Monday that after talking with constituents and public health advocates, he believes there should be no exceptions.

“We’ve had plenty of evidence … that this is a public health problem of significant proportions,” McConnell said, adding that he doesn’t think the military should be “treated differently on a public health issue.”

The bill, introduced with another tobacco-state lawmaker, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, would require retailers to determine that buyers of tobacco products are 21 or older and would allow states to enact laws with higher minimums if they choose.

“It is our responsibility as parents and public servants to do everything we can to keep these harmful products out of high schools and out of youth culture,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

His push comes as 12 states — including California, Illinois and Washington — have raised the tobacco age to 21, as have more than 100 localities, including New York City, Chicago and both Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas. Several other senators have introduced similar legislation.

Kentucky has the highest rate of lung cancer in the nation, and McConnell said he believes it’s because the state has had ”loyalty” to tobacco. The cash crop was grown in 119 of Kentucky’s 120 counties when he first ran in 1984 for the Senate, McConnell said.

“It’s like if you worked in a Ford plant, you felt like you ought to drive a Ford,” he said. “We’ve had very high smoking rates and we’ve suffered the consequences from that.”

An estimated 4,960 new cases are expected to be diagnosed in the state in 2019 and an estimated 3,290 Kentuckians will die of the disease this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

McConnell noted the epidemic has worsened in recent years as vaping has gained popularity among high-school and even middle school students. The e-cigarettes, such as Juul, still contain nicotine, he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2017 to 2018, youth e-cigarette users increased by 1.5 million, with more than 1 in 4 high school students having reported using a tobacco product in the past 30 days.

McConnell said he doesn’t expect raising the national age to “solve every problem, but it will sure make it harder for 18-year-olds to pass these products along to middle schoolers.”

“It’s time to tackle this public health crisis and I’d like Kentucky to be in the forefront of doing that,” he said.

McConnell acknowledged in a speech on the Senate floor that he seems an “unusual candidate” to lead the charge, but said the negative health effects of tobacco cannot be ignored despite tobacco’s “storied past” in Kentucky and the U.S.

He recounted some of tobacco’s sway in the Senate, noting that there are still spittoons in the chambers and there once were snuffboxes. The residue on the floors at the Capitol, he noted, was “so considerable that Charles Dickens warned fellow visitors not to pick up anything they dropped.”

But, he said, times have changed. “Kentucky farmers don’t want their children to get hooked on tobacco products while they’re in middle school or high school any more than any parent anywhere wants that to happen.”

McConnell said he’s sought to help tobacco farmers transition. He was instrumental in 2004 in securing a $10 billion tobacco buyout that helped farmers move to new crops and he’s championed industrial hemp as an agricultural alternative to tobacco.

Some health advocates had been wary that legislation proposed by the tobacco-state Republican would be too favorable to the tobacco industry. At the state level, the industry has sought provisions that would block some policies, including a prohibition on flavored tobacco products that critics say are intended to lure younger users.

But McConnell’s initial proposal had the backing of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and the language of McConnell’s ‘‘Tobacco-Free Youth Act” appears straight-forward and addresses only the age issue.

Ben Chandler, the foundation’s president and CEO, urged Congress to pass the bill quickly.

“Every extra day it takes to put this important legislation into effect is an opportunity for thousands more kids to access a tobacco product that can damage their developing brains now and cause debilitating health issues throughout their lives,” Chandler said, noting that since McConnell last month announced plans to file the legislation, new data has come out showing that youth e-cigarette use in Kentucky had doubled over the past two years.

McConnell brushed aside conservative criticism, including from a Washington Examiner columnist who called the attempt “nanny state nonsense.”

“If you’re a libertarian and you think the federal government basically should stay out of almost everything, I think that’s an understandable, philosophical argument,” McConnell said. “But I think the public health threat overrides that for me.”

McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2020, said he’s had little push back on the measure, even though there are still about 2,600 tobacco growers in the state.

“I’ve gotten minimal or no complaints,” he said. “I think even the people who grow tobacco know it’s hazardous to your health and at least if we can take a step in the direction of making this more an adult decision and less a teenage decision, I think that’s something everyone ought to be able to agree on.”