McConnell wants to up the tobacco age to 21, but will he also protect the industry?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promises legislation later this month to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco to 21. But a group of Republican and Democratic senators are embracing an alternative amid worries the Kentucky Republican’s bill may be too favorable to the tobacco industry.

Republican senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Todd Young of Indiana on Wednesday said they’re backing legislation that would lift the purchase age from 18 to 21. The bill, also sponsored by Democratic senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Dick Durbin of Illinois, is “clean, it is simple, it is free of loopholes,” Schatz said.

It’s also earned the endorsement of the advocacy group, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which has held off endorsing McConnell’s legislation because it hasn’t yet seen the bill.

Anti-smoking advocates are concerned that McConnell’s bill could contain industry-sought provisions that would block other policies, such as prohibitions on flavored tobacco products.

The fear is that McConnell’s legislation could be closer to a bill introduced by Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Alabama, that advocates say includes a provision that could benefit tobacco giants Philip Morris International and Altria by creating a new definition of “vapor product” that would include the IQOS heated tobacco product, which the FDA recently approved.

Aderholt’s chief of staff Brian Rell, however, said the vapor product provision would have “zero effect” on products like IQOS, which are regulated by the FDA. Rell said it was necessary to define vapor products in the legislation because the bill — unlike other legislation — requires that online vendors of vaping products verify that their consumers are at least 21.

Under Aderholt’s bill, online vendors would have to obtain full names, birth dates, and addresses and verify them through a third-party database. Upon delivery, a person over 21 would have to sign for the package.

The anti-smoking groups, however, have endorsed the alternative Romney and other senators are pushing. “We urge Congress to pass this strong legislation and to reject any effort whatsoever by special interests to either water down or to add provisions” that would benefit the tobacco industry, said Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Schatz said his legislation also has the backing of the American Lung Association and other tobacco cessation groups because “it has no loopholes, it has no exceptions, there are no tricks.”

He added that if McConnell is interested in similar legislation, “the cleanest way for him to do that would be to co-sponsor our bill. We look forward to seeing what he proposes.”

Neither Republican co-sponsor would elaborate on why they signed onto Schatz’s bill rather than McConnell’s.

“I can’t improve upon that answer,” Young said after Schatz spoke. “Ditto,” Romney offered.

“What so important about this piece of legislation is that it’s clean, it’s direct, it’s straight forward,” Romney said. “It has the capacity to pick up the 60 votes (for passage in the Senate) and actually become law and save lives.”

McConnell’s office would only say that he plans to introduce his legislation later this month.

One difference: McConnell said his legislation would include an exemption for military personnel who are under 21. Schatz his legislation would not.

Schatz would hold the retailer responsible for an underage sale and would give the Secretary of Health and Human Services the authority to conduct undercover compliance checks, inspect retail operations and take enforcement steps.

McConnell, who announced his intent to propose legislation last month in Louisville, said at the time he hopes hiking the age would cut down on the number of teens using tobacco, especially as vaping has gained popularity among high-school students.

Kentucky has the highest rate of lung cancer in the nation. An estimated 4,960 new cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2019 and an estimated 3,290 Kentuckians will die of the disease this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

The push comes as 12 states — including California, Illinois and Washington — have raised the tobacco age to 21, along with more than 100 localities, including New York City, Chicago and both Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas.

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.