A bipartisan congressional plan to raise the federal minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 won’t include an exception for military members, despite past indications from top Senate leaders those plans would not include active-duty troops.

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., announced details of their new legislation, calling it a way to curb the “public health crisis” of teenage smoking.

“When teenagers use tobacco, they are quite literally altering their brain’s chemistry and making it more susceptible to addiction,” McConnell said in a floor speech unveiling the idea. “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.”

In an interview with the Herald-Leader on Monday, McConnell acknowledged that he had considered an exemption on the new age limits for military members, but dropped that idea after discussions with public health advocates.

“We’ve had plenty of evidence ... that this is a public health problem of significant proportions,” McConnell told the paper. He added that the military should not be “treated differently on a public health issue.”

Kaine said that “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.”

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health released last year found about 30 percent of veterans used tobacco products on a regular basis. Past Defense Department surveys have shown almost one-in-four active-duty members smoke on a regular basis.

Both McConnell and Kaine come from states where the tobacco industry plays a major role in the regional economy. They said the goal is not to end tobacco use among adults, but to make sure that the product is being used in a legal and responsible way.

“E-cigarettes are the most commonly used product among the young, and they are frequently used in combination with other tobacco products,” Kaine said.

“And the recent increase in use of tobacco products is heavily, heavily driven by the popularity of these cigarettes … able to be shared with friends, sold in kid-friendly flavors with a high-nicotine content.”

Already 13 states have passed laws raising the legal tobacco purchase age to 21. Of those, only two — Maryland and California — have exemptions for members of the military who are between 18 and 21 years old.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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