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South Valley Journal

Local school districts join mass-action lawsuit against e-cigarette maker, Juul Labs

Oct 04, 2021 11:07AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Jordan, Canyons and Murray are amongst the hundreds of school districts that have joined a mass-action lawsuit against e-cigarette maker, Juul Labs, Inc., claiming that they deceitfully and intentionally marketed their products to children.

This has led to an increase in e-cigarette use amongst youths, statistics reveal, so in the mass-action lawsuit, they are wanting to hold the company responsible and seek damages for the “vaping epidemic” on school campuses around the country. 

Jordan Board of Education President Tracy Miller said, “vaping is a really big problem in our schools.”

“We have a lot of kids who vape, a lot who don’t necessarily know how bad it is,” she said. “They are companies using different flavors and marketing, aimed at youth, and it caught on and became popular at a lot of schools. We (Jordan Board of Education) recognized that it’s a problem and need to hold Juul accountable. The problem is they weren’t forthright and transparent about what was going on. There’s high levels of nicotine in vape products, (which are) highly addictive and it was not marketed that way.”

Canyons Board of Education member Mont Millerberg agrees.

“We need to call a spade a spade,” he said. “Vaping is not a healthy habit and with them having Captain Crunch and sugary flavors, it’s targeting our most vulnerable population to lead them to believe ‘it’s a cool thing.’ If this puts a stop to marketing unhealthy products to children, I’m happy to support it.”

Jordan District approved the legal service agreement on Aug. 24 as they joined the mass-action lawsuit. Canyons joined in Sept. 7, and Murray, Sept. 9. 

Granite’s school board has studied the litigation, said Ben Horsley, Granite School District spokesman.

“The Granite School District has recognized the harmful effects of vaping on our youth,” he said on Sept. 17. “The Board of Education and district administration has studied the associated litigation and is inclined to participate.”

Vaping products, known as e-cigarettes or mods, are battery-powered devices that heat up a liquid to create an aerosol vapor which typically contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals. Since the user inhales and it doesn’t emit the strong odor associated with conventional combustion cigarettes, and they are designed to resemble USB flash drives, keychains or lipstick tubes, youth often have them in plain sight, even plugged into a laptop, officials say.

According to 2020-21 statistics collected by Jordan School District, 90% of the tobacco violations in the district’s schools were infractions against vaping, with only 10% for regular cigarettes.

“Vaping is just so prevalent these days,” said Sharon Jensen, Jordan District’s student support services consultant. 

Jensen said that youth see vaping in social media or have greater access to it, even getting it from family members as 56% say their parents or other close adults are nicotine users. 

Sometimes, even adults are unfamiliar with the harm and addiction from e-cigarette use, including that it can hamper long-term adolescent brain development, according to Utah Department of Health research. In a 2021 report, it states Utah’s youth vape at nearly twice the rate of Utah’s adults.

Jordan’s statistics reveal that the majority are regular users. Last year, of the students caught with tobacco, 98 were directed to attend an online first-offenders class for nicotine. Of those students, 18% used nicotine 26 days-plus in the last month—“basically daily,” she said. Another 11% used it between 13 and 25 days in that past month.  

Most students who vape are teens, she said.

Of those 98 students assigned to the online class, 25% are age 13. Another 24% are 14 years old. Six percent are age 12 or younger, making the greatest amount, at 45%, in high school.

“Often they vape on the job and their outside-of-school-life is much more colorful than their in-school-life,” Jensen said.

Those statistics are in line with the state, according to the Utah Prevention Needs Assessment that showed 12.4% of eighth graders tried vaping; 25.5% of high school sophomores; and 32.1% of high school seniors.

In Canyons District in 2019, there were 219 school office referrals, first-time and/or repeat referrals, for e-cigarette use or possession, up from 35 referrals in 2010. 

Justin Pitcher, who has served as an administrator in Canyons District in the Midvale and Cottonwood Heights communities at both elementary and secondary levels, said vaping is “definitely a concern.”

“If it’s happening in high schools, then it’s happening in elementary; the frequency is different,” he said, saying there are fewer younger students caught with devices although all age levels may have access to them despite administrators taking them away. 

Jensen said that Jordan District policy is to collect and lock up Juuls and other violating products; they can be returned to an adult in the family.

She’s hoping their first-time user classes as well as well as the END—Ending Nicotine Dependence—course for regular users will help youth identify the harm it does to their bodies.

“What we want our kids to do is to learn and to quit,” Jensen said.

There is no fee for the classes as Jordan District has a state SAFE (Supporting America's Families and Educators) grant which it dedicated to alcohol and drug abuse prevention.

However, hundreds of school districts nationwide are wanting Juul to foot the bills for public resources being used to pay for the current and future costs.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the Northern District of California Federal District Court by the Frantz Law group, is a mass tort lawsuit where damages for plaintiffs, or in this case, school districts, are calculated individually. Therefore, multiple plaintiffs can be awarded differing amounts of damages for the amount of its past and future damages.

Those costs can range from providing information and resources to students regarding the negative impacts of vaping, student services or counseling, or installing vape detectors.

“It’s not really about getting money as much as sending a message,” Miller said.

Millerberg agrees: “I don’t expect a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s more of a moral stance than anything else.”