As investigations into the cause of a nationwide vape-linked health crisis continue amid widening bans on vaping products, school districts across the country are setting their sights on JUUL Laboratories, the company that makes the massively popular JUUL e-cigarette device. School districts say JUUL is primarily responsible for the dramatic uptick in vaping among young people and teens, and they’re moving to sue the e-cigarette company for damages.
So far, four school districts have filed lawsuits against JUUL. School officials say responding to the widespread use of vaping among students has cost them considerable time and resources and caused record numbers of students to miss class due to disciplinary actions for nicotine violations. Three of the lawsuits also claim JUUL knowingly marketed its flavored e-cigarette products to minors. JUUL Labs has long-denied that it markets its products to teenagers. The company says its e-cigarettes are designed to help people quit using conventional tobacco products. So far, JUUL has not commented on the lawsuits from the school districts.
“As smart as our students are, they don’t understand the long-term ramifications of vaping and the amount of addictive chemicals they are dealing with,” said superintendent of Olathe Public Schools in Kansas City John Allison. Olathe serves roughly 30,0000 students, and it’s one of the first school districts in the country to sue JUUL over teen vaping.
Three other districts, La Conner School District in Washington, Three Village Central School District in New York and Francis Howell School District in Missouri have also filed lawsuits against JUUL. Jonathan Kieffer, an attorney with the law firm Wagstaff & Cartmell in Kansas City, Missouri who’s representing three of the districts, expects the lawsuits to kick off a wave of similar legal actions against JUUL. “School districts have decided to go on the offensive to combat the epidemic of youth vaping in the nation’s schools,” said Kieffer. “The lawsuits that we filed were the first in what we fully anticipate will be many, many more to follow.”
But school districts could have a tough go making their case, and it isn’t certain yet whether courts will permit the lawsuits to go to trial. In the past, school districts have sued gunmakers, opioid manufacturers and tobacco companies on the grounds that they can be held liable for failing to protect their students from known harms. Schools have also pursued litigation against lead paint manufacturers to recover the costs of removing the toxic material.
Across the country, school officials have pulled out all the stops in an attempt to reduce teen e-cigarette and vape use. Bathrooms in particular have been hot-spots for intervention, with schools removing stall doors, hiring monitors and even installing expensive sensors to detect vape plumes. Schools have also banned items resembling JUUL e-cigarette devices, such as USB flash drives. Some say they’ve had to invest resources in tutoring students who miss class over vape-related suspensions and developing programs to help students fight nicotine addiction.
Now, the districts behind the lawsuits say they want JUUL to pay for what schools have done to prevent students from vaping. However, the lawsuits do not yet specify any specific amount of damages the school districts are seeking.
JUUL Labs has already taken steps in an attempt to control the damage to its reputation and brand that more than 1,000 vape-linked illnesses and 21 confirmed vape-related deaths have done. The health crises linked to vaping has also renewed public outrage over the popularity of vaping among teens. The Centers for Disease Control report that 25 percent of U.S. high school students have inhaled an e-cigarette product in the last 30 days.
Concerns over the preponderance of teen vaping have brought heavy scrutiny to companies like JUUL, which are accused of intentionally marketing addictive products to minors. In September, JUUL Labs CEO Kevin Burns stepped down from his role as the company moved to halt all print, digital and broadcast advertising.
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