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Senate panel approves bipartisan bill to raise federal smoking age

A man exhales vapor from an electronic cigarette in 2018. (Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images)

A Senate panel approved a bipartisan bill Wednesday that would raise the country’s smoking age to 21 from 18, a step the measure’s sponsors hailed as progress toward combating the rise in youth vaping.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved the Tobacco-Free Youth Act, which was co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

“I’m grateful to my colleagues for advancing our legislation to help curb the spike of youth tobacco use,” McConnell said in a statement. “Because children are extremely vulnerable to becoming addicted to nicotine and suffering its lifelong consequences, we must do everything we can to keep these products out of their hands.”

It remains unclear when the measure will be brought to the Senate floor.

The measure would make it illegal to sell a tobacco product to any person under 21 years old in all states. It would include military personnel, a category that is exempted in some states that have raised the legal age.

Sixteen states and the District have raised the tobacco sale age to 21; Virginia and Maryland have enacted their laws, while New York is waiting for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s (D) signature, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Initially the legislation said states that did not comply risked losing federal substance-abuse block grant funding, but the section was amended to allay concerns that kept some advocates from supporting the legislation. A retailer that sold tobacco to anyone under 21 would still be in violation of federal law.

The Food and Drug Administration this year issued a policy designed to combat what the agency’s director has called “an epidemic” of teen vaping by restricting how and where flavored e-cigarettes are sold.