The history of tobacco's influence in Kentucky politics for far too long favored producers of a product that has been proven to kill people.
Often that protection was veiled under the guise of protecting the small family farmer who worked a full-time job but raised a tobacco patch to supplement the family's income.
That was back before the 2004 Tobacco Buyout abolished the quota system that tied production to specific parcels of land. Over the intervening decade and a half, tobacco consumption has dropped drastically, as has production. In 1998 Kentucky produced 416 million pounds of air-cured light burley Type 31 tobacco, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service's online database. By 2008, that statewide harvest had dropped to 147 million pounds. In 2018, it was 80 million. Kentucky had an estimated 30,000 tobacco farmers in 2004. Today that number is closer to 2,600.
The decline in stakeholders and the growing awareness of tobacco's ill health effects have combined to weaken its political influence to the point where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday introduced legislation to raise the legal age required to purchase tobacco products to 21.
In most states the legal age to purchase alcohol has been 21 following passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. Alcohol-related causes remains the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, almost 90,000 a year. By comparison, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate cigarette smoking is responsible for 480,000 deaths per year. More than two-thirds of people who start smoking become dependant, nurturing an addiction that can last a lifetime.
It only makes sense that the age to purchase nicotine products is at least that of alcohol.
Bipartisanship is on the brink of extinction in Washington, D.C., but McConnell's bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who represents Virginia, which is rooted just as deeply in tobacco production as the Bluegrass.
While smoking has declined in recent years, the latest concern centers on vaping, especially among teens. The long-term effects of vaping are unknown, but it is a delivery mechanism for nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco. The Surgeon General of the United States has warned that youth vaping has become "an epidemic."
Raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 would help protect young people from a life of nicotine addiction and should be passed by Congress. It's time lawmakers sided with people over the tobacco producers.