1 December 2019
Districts in states across the country sue to recoup money seek on fighting widespread use of e-cigarettes
More than a dozen school districts across the US have filed lawsuits against vape companies, in the latest effort to hold the industry and its largest company, Juul, to account.
School districts in states including Missouri, Kansas, Arizona, New York and California have filed lawsuits against Juul and other vape companies, seeking to recoup financial losses incurred while attempting to manage the exploding number of students using e-cigarettes.
The lawsuits come as some 27.5% of American high school students and 10.5% of middle school students say they have used e-cigarettes in the past month, according to a recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The epidemic of vaping “has required and continues to require significant expenditures” to address, reads a complaint against Juul filed by the Ava R-I school district in a federal court last week.
The district, located in a rural southern Missouri community with a population of about 3,000, accuses Juul of racketeering related to marketing to minors, being a public nuisance by “creating an epidemic of nicotine use by students”, and gross negligence. Schools have been forced to use “significant resources to combat skyrocketing use of Juul products by students”, the district says.
“Because JUUL’s marketing to youth was so effective and the resulting rise in student vaping was so quick, little research exists on the effectiveness of prevention and cessation methods,” the complaint reads. “Schools are, thus, forced to attack the epidemic from multiple angles, each requiring significant expenditures of their limited resources.”
Vaping detection systems can cost as much as $40,000 to install and districts across the country say they have had to hire full-time staff members to monitor hallways and bathrooms for students vaping.
The Missouri district claims Juul purposefully targeted student-aged youth and used language in its marketing including telling adolescents its products were “totally safe”. It accuses Juul of “viral marketing” campaigns and advertising using influencers that would appeal to young people.
Students “would not fully realize the dangerous and addictive nature of JUUL products and the long-term complications nicotine addiction can present, or that, due to their youth, inexperience and/or immaturity of judgment, would recklessly disregard such risks”, the complaint says.
Managing student vaping has stolen “countless hours” of learning time from students, said Augustin Gonzalez, principal at Thomas Jefferson high school, part of a school district in Los Angeles that has also filed a suit against Juul. He said it is difficult to discipline the students as suspending them often will just give them more time to vape off campus.
“I studied to be a teacher, not a private investigator to target vaping products,” he said. “The loss of instructional time has had a huge impact on our schools.”
Francis Howell school district in Missouri filed a similar lawsuit in federal court against Juul on 7 October, claiming schools have been “uniquely and disproportionately impacted by Juul’s conduct”.
In the past three years, the number of disciplinary incidents regarding nicotine has soared across the district, from three a year to more than 200, the district said in the complaint.
“Educators are being forced to expend significant resources to combat Juul use by students,” the complaint reads. “Juul use by students during school presents both a danger to students and increases the resources necessary to educate the students who use Juul.”
Faculty have had to take extreme measures including removing bathroom doors, installing vape sensors in bathrooms, banning USB flash drives, and hiring additional staff to combat vaping. Francis Howell is seeking at least $75,000 in damages in a jury trial.
Many of the cases share similar language, targeting Juul for its allegedly deceptive advertising and targeting of youth while profiting from the addiction epidemic. In 2017, Juul’s revenues grew by 700% to $200m and in 2018 hit the $1 bn mark. The company forecasts revenue of more than $3bn for 2019.
Meanwhile, reports of vaping-related illnesses have increased across the US, drawing increased scrutiny and regulation directed at the company. In 2019, doctors and patients reported a rash of lung diseases tied to e-cigarette use. It is not clear how many of these cases are tied to nicotine vapes versus THC vapes, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have cautioned Americans against all forms of vaping until more is known. There have beenmore than 2,000 cases of vaping-associated lung injury.
Immediate lung problems are just part of the range of health concerns brought about by the huge vaping epidemic, said Yogi Hale Hendlin, a research associate at the Environmental Health Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
“Nicotine use in the formative years of brain development can rewire brains to have less focused attention or ability to concentrate on one thing for a sustained amount of time,” he said. “It also inhibits impulse control, which presents a big problem for society at large in the long term.”
Juul did not respond to a request for comment, but it has repeatedly denied it has marketed to teens. In recent months it has halted the sales of flavored vapes, including its popular mint pods, in the US and has stopped all US advertising.
Still, the company is facing opposition from all sides. New York state and California are suing the company, and individual families affected by addiction have also sued it. The Trump administration considered and then dropped plans for a national ban on flavors.
National legislation to address the epidemic lags behind its exploding scale, said Jeremiah Mock, a researcher at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF.
“The use of Juul has undeniably changed school culture and had a profound effect on student experience,” he said. “In the absence of clear and effective FDA regulation, local jurisdictions have to do whatever they can”.