Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, because troops under 21 won’t be allowed to for much longer.

A bipartisan congressional plan to raise the federal minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 was included in a sweeping budget bill expected to be passed into law by the end of the week. And contrary to previous comments from lawmakers, there is no exception in the law for members of the military.

In a joint statement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., called the move a “lifesaving” change for thousands of young Americans. Advocates estimate that raising the purchase age by three years will cut down smoking-related cancers and respiratory illnesses by more than 220,000 cases in coming years.

The two lawmakers were the driving force behind the effort, a surprising turn given their home state’s strong ties to the tobacco industry.

But cases of vaping illnesses and deaths in recent months pushed the issue back into public focus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 high school students and 1 in 8 middle school students report using some type of tobacco product in the past 30 days.

When McConnell first introduced the legislation last spring, he acknowledged considering an exemption on the new age limits for military members. But he dropped the idea after discussions with public health advocates, saying that the military should not be “treated differently on a public health issue.”

Kaine agreed, saying 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.”

Nineteen states, the District of Columbia and Guam already ban tobacco sales to anyone under 21. The new law will apply to the rest of the country and all military bases.

According to a military survey in 2011, about 25 percent of men and 18 percent of women in the military use tobacco products. Members of the Marine Corps were the heaviest users, with nearly one-third of that force actively using tobacco.

The budget bill is expected to be approved by Congress by the end of the week. If it passes, the new age limits for tobacco products will go into effect sometime in 2020, after federal agencies develop new rules for ID checks and related sales issues.

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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