According to the Centers for Disease Control, “vaping” among teenagers nearly doubled between 2017 and 2018. Today, more than 20 percent of high school students admit to having used e-cigarette products. That translates into 3 million underage youth who have been drawn into the practice of “vaping,” allegedly due to aggressive, targeted industry marketing.

Already, vape industry advertising has become a cause of action for individual lawsuits. A 20-year-old woman in Alabama recently filed a complaint against JUUL, claiming that she has developed a “severe” addiction to nicotine, resulting in mood disorders, after starting in the company’s products 3 years ago. Her lawsuit states that JUUL and other vape companies have “orchestrated efforts to addict a new generation of teenagers to nicotine.”

At the same time, the FDA has begun efforts to regulate and restrict vape products. Meanwhile, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), whose own father died from lung cancer brought on by heavy tobacco use, recently wrote a powerful editorial in which he reflects on his role in putting the brakes on Big Tobacco in the late 1990s – and his present concern that history is repeating itself with Big Vape. The senator notes that vaping among high schoolers has increased by 78 percent over the past 12 months, while the rate among middle school youth has gone up by 48 percent.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the tobacco industry knows exactly why all of this has been happening. For most of the first half of the 20th Century, Big Tobacco enjoyed incredible success in convincing the public to smoke – even going so far as to claim the practice offered health benefits. It was about the same time that campaigns such as “Smoke Camels – For Digestion’s Sake!” and “More doctors recommend Lucky Strikes!” were underway in the late 1930s that medical science began to suspect a link between tobacco use and lung cancer. By the 1950s, the evidence was clear – but it took almost 50 more years of hard-fought litigation and public and legislative pressure before the tobacco industry was finally held accountable.

The problem, as Senator Durbin notes in his editorial, is that we as a society have once again underestimated the power of greed. E-cigarettes have provided Big Tobacco yet another golden opportunity to hook a new generation – and it is using many of the same old tricks.

Unfortunately, new communication technology and the frightening power of social media is making it all the more effective. Attractive ad images and tempting fruit and candy-flavored vape liquids aside, the e-cigarette industry is also offering scholarships and sponsoring entertainment events – and of course, industry lobbyists are busy on Capitol Hill doling out campaign “contributions.”

It may be true that the folks at JUUL and other vape companies have expressed concerns about underage use of their products. However, their actions and where they are investing their dollars say something else entirely. Politicians and legislators may seem to be concerned, but in the end, when JUUL Labs shows up and starts handing out campaign money, will they really bite the hand that feeds them? And with a court system now stacked with corporate toadies, how much of an uphill battle will plaintiffs and their lawyers face as they attempt to hold the e-cigarette industry accountable?

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.