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South Florida school district sues JUUL over teen vaping costs

The Palm Beach County School District is suing the JUUL electronic cigarette company, joining more than a dozen districts across the nation seeking to recover costs of combating the growing use of vaping products among teens.

A federal lawsuit filed Friday in the Southern District of Florida demands compensation for “direct and consequential economic injuries” suffered by the district “as a result of dealing with the JUUL epidemic.”

Other school districts that have filed similar suits against JUUL Labs, Inc. include Francis Howell (Mo.) School District, Seattle (Wash.) School District, Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District, and Central Bucks County (Pa.) School District.

The suit accuses JUUL, maker of e-cigarette devices and flavored liquid nicotine used for vaping, of marketing directly to school-age teens “with a proven and familiar strategy” used decades earlier by traditional cigarette companies before such efforts were banned. JUUL’s strategies include making flavors, such as mango, fruit medley, cool mint and crème brulee.

With JUUL as the e-cigarette market’s dominant player, e-cigarette use increased 78 percent among high school students and 48 percent among middle school students between 2017 and 2018, the suit states, citing a 2018 survey by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released in February.

The lawsuit counters claims by e-cigarette makers and users that vaping is safer than traditional cigarettes, saying that nicotine “is a toxic chemical associated with cardiovascular, reproductive and immunosuppressive problems.” E-cigarette users are at increased risk of strokes and heart attacks, while nicotine exposure during adolescence is associated with deficits in memory, attention, auditory processing, increased impulsivity, anxiety and increased prospects of addiction to other drugs, the suit states.

JUUL launched its first product in 2010, the suit states, and introduced its current design in 2015. Its rectangular shape resembles a USB flash drive, while its battery indicator light “gratuitously flashes in ‘party mode’ when shaken by its user. That feature is “intended solely to make the product appeal to youth,” the suit states.

An attorney for JUUL did not respond to a request for comment. But in the past, the company has defended its products as devices to help adults stop using tobacco. The company has stopped sales of its flavored products to retail stores and shut down its social media accounts.

The suit by Palm Beach County’s school district is nearly identical to suits by numerous other districts, with findings and charges that closely track one another across nearly 100 pages, including identical illustrations. The suits were filed by the same law firm, Kansas City-based Wagstaff & Cartmell LLP, in partnership with firms in the districts’ local areas.

None of three suits obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel include any specific expenditure incurred by their respective school districts as a result of teen vaping.

Lead counsel for the suit in Palm Beach County is identified as Winter Park-based Maher Law Firm.

“Significant and ongoing nicotine abuse and addiction by students” at Palm Beach County schools “continues to necessitate significant steps to combat and prevent use … by students,” the complaint states.

“For example, Palm Beach (sic) Schools has been forced to: (a) create a ‘night class’ for students who have been suspended because of vaping; (b) redirect staff to assist in revising the Student Code of Conduct geared at specifically prohibiting the use of e-cigarettes; (c) conduct Town Hall meetings to educate parents about the dangers attendant from students’ use of e-cigarettes,” the suit states.

District officials could not be reached for comment about the suit Monday, as Palm Beach County schools are closed for Thanksgiving week.

Ron Hirtibise/South Florida Sun Sentinel