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Citing epidemic of vaping, school districts sue e-cigarette manufacturers

By Mark Shenefelt - | Mar 16, 2022
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In this April 16, 2019, file photo, a researcher holds vape pens in a laboratory in Portland, Ore. On Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, U.S. health officials delayed a high-stakes decision on whether to permit best selling vaping brand Juul to stay on the market, while ordering thousands of other electronic cigarettes off store shelves.
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This image shows a Juul e-cigarette ad. The manufacturer is being sued by Utah school districts for its aggressive marketing toward teenagers. An estimated 38,000 teenagers in Utah have tried e-cigarettes, the Utah Department of Health says.
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This promotional image shows Juul e-cigarette items. The manufacturer is being sued by Utah school districts for its aggressive marketing toward teenagers. An estimated 38,000 teenagers in Utah have tried e-cigarettes, the Utah Department of Health says.

BRIGHAM CITY — The Box Elder School District on Tuesday sued e-cigarette market leader Juul Labs and other manufacturers, alleging fraud and racketeering in the flooding of schools with vaping devices, nicotine-addicted students and associated problems.

The Davis School District filed a similar suit in February, as did the Ogden School District last September, according to Northern California U.S. District Court records. The suits were filed there because Juul is headquartered in San Francisco.

“What we see here is that in school districts in Utah and across the country, vaping is an epidemic,” William Shinoff, a San Diego attorney whose firm represents the districts in the litigation, said Tuesday. “This is one step we are taking in trying to resolve this issue and provide resources to their campuses.”

Shinoff said his firm represents about 700 school districts around the nation. The suits claim personal injury and product liability and seek injunctions against e-cigarette companies, plus monetary damages — at least $1 million per school district. The funds would help pay for school programs to inhibit student vaping and provide counseling, treatment and other help to those addicted.

Other defendants include the Altria Group, Philip Morris USA and several individuals, all accused in the suits of developing nicotine-rich e-cigarettes and marketing them for youth, using enticing flavors and slick media campaigns.

An estimated 38,000 Utah teenagers, 17.9%, have tried vaping products, according to a 2021 Utah Department of Health report.

An estimated 13.2% of teens in the Weber-Morgan Health Department’s area were regular e-cigarette users, the report said. Most other Wasatch Front health districts were lower: Davis County, 6.9%; Bear River, which includes Box Elder County, 7.1%; and Utah County, 4.8%. The statewide user estimate was 7.8%.

Efforts to reach Box Elder School District Superintendent Steve Carlsen were not immediately successful.

The district lawsuits allege Juul made “fraudulent misrepresentations or omissions regarding Juul’s intentional addictiveness and method of nicotine delivery, combined with the intent, contrary to public statements, to grow the market for nicotine-addicted individuals for their own financial gain.”

Juul and other defendants, the suit said, developed a strategy to create a highly addictive product that users would not associate with cigarettes and that would appeal to the lucrative youth market. The strategy allegedly was designed to deceive the public into thinking e-cigarettes were a fun and safe alternative to cigarettes that would also help smokers quit. Further, according to the suit, target marketing would attract young users and include false and deceptive statements to the public and regulators, to delay regulation of e-cigarettes.

Juul was introduced in 2015 and its revenue grew by 700% in 2017 alone, according to the suit. Two years later, Juul controlled 75% of the market.

The districts also assert that Juul delivers 2.5 times as much nicotine per puff as a cigarette. In local districts’ high schools and middle schools, students charge their vaping devices, some of which resemble USB drives, in class, and the prevalence has created a public health crisis, the suit said.

Decades of public health campaigns against cigarette smoking have been undermined by the use of e-cigarettes becoming normalized “and regarded as ‘cool,’ particularly among youth peer groups,” the suit said. “This contributes to the false impression that e-cigarette use is safe.”

Monetary damages won in the litigation would allow districts to craft education and outreach campaigns about e-cigarette use and its dangers to combat manufacturers’ marketing and the social pressures the trend has created, the suit said.

The suit also seeks damages due to the alleged conspiratorial aspects of campaigns aimed at expanding an illicit e-cigarette market for underage users.

On its website, Juul Labs said it has refocused the company on combating underage use of its products.

“Over the past few years trust in our company and category has eroded,” a company statement said. “Juul Labs is committed to taking concrete action to re-earn that trust.”

The company said it suspended broadcast, print and digital marketing in the United States in 2019. It said it supported the age 21 federal law for e-cigarette consumption and has expanded age verification technology to prevent purchases by underage users via e-commerce.

Juul said its mission now is to “transition the world’s billion adult smokers away from combustible cigarettes, eliminate their use, and combat underage usage of our products.”

In addition to the wave of school district suits, Juul also has been under legal assault by state governments. In the past year, it has agreed to settle consumer fraud lawsuits in Arizona for $14.5 million and North Carolina, $40 million.

The Utah Legislature in 2021 increased penalties for tobacco and e-cigarette retailers for underage sales and mandated that no e-cigarette products could be sold of more than 3% weight per container.

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