Proposed Ban on Tobacco Sales to Those Under 21 Would Affect Troops

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Service member smokes a cigarette at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Service member smokes a cigarette at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. (United States Army Alaska/Staff Sgt. Jason Epperson)

The national age limit to buy tobacco products would increase to 21 for civilians and service members alike in the latest version of Congress' spending package, which is expected to be passed later this week.

Lawmakers announced an inclusion of the provision, which does not make an exemption for military, in a joint press release from Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia. The two senators, from tobacco-producing states, originally introduced this measure in as separate bill earlier this year.

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"In recognition of tobacco's history in our states and aware of the threat that all tobacco products pose now and for future generations," McConnell said in a release in May, "we introduced legislation to raise the national age of purchase to 21. 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."

So far, 52 people have died in the United States from an e-cigarette- or vaping-related illness and 2,409 people have been hospitalized, the Centers for Disease Control reported on Dec. 10.

The most recent data from the CDC on military smoking rates is almost five years old, but it shows between 2011 and 2015, smoking rates among service members went down: in the Army, rates dropped from 27% to 15%; in the Air Force, 17% to 9%; in the Marine Corps, 31% to 21%; and in the Navy, 24% to 14%.

A newer report with updated numbers is expected to be released soon, a Defense Health Agency spokesman said via email Dec. 3.

Kaine said in a recent news release that increasing the national tobacco purchase age limit to 21 would reduce the number of premature deaths by 223,000 and reduce lung cancer deaths, among other health problems.

"As the father of a Marine and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I feel strongly we should extend the same public health protections to members of the military as we do to their civilian counterparts," Kaine said in a statement.

The increased limit would apply to all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and go into effect later next year.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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