Does this man look cooler to you than Joe Camel?
Does this man look cooler to you than Joe Camel? DAN KITWOOD / GETTY IMAGES

Teenagers across the United States are vaping more than ever, a report released today found. The news comes as a fight over vape advertising and labeling restrictions is set to play out here in Oregon.

According to Monitoring the Future (MTF), a joint venture by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and researchers at the University of Michigan, nearly 21 percent of high school seniors surveyed in the last year said they’d used a nicotine vape device in the past 30 days. That nearly doubles last year’s figure of 11 percent.

In a press release, MTF made a direct link between teenage vaping and the company JUUL, which manufactures sleek, un-obstructive vaping devices and teen-friendly vaping liquid flavors like mango and cucumber. Last month, JUUL announced plans to pull its flavored e-cigarettes from stores and delete its social media accounts after the Food and Drug Administration declared teenage vaping an epidemic.

It’s a move reminiscent of the Joe Camel saga of the 1990s. In the early 90s, cigarette brand Camel (owned by the Reynolds Tobacco Company) saw its share of the under-18 market jump from virtually nonexistent to over 30 percent, thanks to the apparently very cool advertising character Joe Camel—but Joe was retired in 1997, under pressure from Congress.

According to MTF, teen cigarette use is continuing a two-decade decline.

Today, there are strict rules at the federal and state level telling cigarette manufacturers how, when, and where they can advertise their products, and what information they need to include on their labels. The vape industry is less regulated, but legislation is catching up to it. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) recently updated its own rules to forbid the selling of nicotine vape products with flavor names or pictures of fruit on their labels in stores.

It’s worth noting that while nicotine vape products are widely seen as a less lethal alternative to cigarettes, they are by no means healthy. According to the American Lung Association, vaping is too new to have long-term health data attached to it—but most vape products contain two ingredients, propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, that are toxic to inhale in large doses. And unlike adults, who might turn to e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, most teens who pick up a JUUL pen likely aren't already hooked on nicotine.

But one vape shop owner here in Portland sees the new restrictions, meant to keep vape products from appealing to children, as a bridge too far. Paul Bates, the owner of Division Vapor, is suing the Oregon Health Authority on the grounds that enforcement of the new regulations would violate his free speech and severely limit his ability to do business. Division Vapor, which has two Portland locations, is only open to customers 21 years and older.

Bates’ suit, announced last week, is being backed by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank based in Arizona. According to the political funding watchdog website SourceWatch, Goldwater Institute has backed pro-vaping measures in the past, and has accepted donations from Altria, formerly known as Phillip Morris Global Tobacco, which sells Marlboro cigarettes as well as vape products.

This lawsuit might have implications for the future of vaping across the country, as a state-level ruling could be used to challenge or uphold national regulations. Meanwhile, lead researcher Richard Miech had some sharp words about vaping in the MTF press release.

“Vaping is reversing hard-fought declines in the number of adolescents who use nicotine,” Miech said. “These results suggest that vaping is leading youth into nicotine use and nicotine addiction, not away from it.”