Vaping Impedes Learning, Diverts Funding, L.A. District Says in Lawsuit Against JUUL

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 30, 2019 4 min read
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The nation’s second-largest school district sued JUUL Labs Inc. on Tuesday, a move that ups the ante on a wave of districts that are filing lawsuits against the e-cigarette manufacturer.

Filed in California superior court, the lawsuit accuses JUUL—which controls three-quarters of the e-cigarette market—of marketing to youth and misrepresenting the health consequences of vaping. That’s led, the district’s complaint says, to an explosion of youth vaping that is impeding learning and requiring the district to redirect spending that could be better spent on teaching and learning.

“We have had to divert dollars away from classroom instruction and instead spend it on counseling and programs to help inform students of the dangers of vaping,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. “Students are becoming addicted to nicotine and other harmful substances and suffering serious health problems, losing days, weeks, and months of instructional time. The loss of instructional time also means a loss of state funding, which is based on student attendance.”

School districts in Kansas, Missouri, and Washington state have also sued the e-cigarette maker in recent months. Additional lawsuits seem likely, and the addition of the 600,000-student Los Angeles district gives additional momentum to the push.

Los Angeles also wants the court to consider the lawsuit a class action on behalf of all California school districts that have suffered harm from student vaping.

The lawsuit comes just days after an article in the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics found that Los Angeles high school students who reported using fruit or candy flavors were more likely to continue vaping than those who used only tobacco, menthol-flavored, or unflavored e-cigarettes. The study was based on giving the same group of students periodic surveys on their e-cigarette use as they progressed through high school.

Thirty percent of Los Angeles County high school students reported using e-cigarettes, according to a 2019 report from the county Office of Public Health.

Though sometimes marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking or even as an “off ramp” to tobacco, child-health experts have raised the alarm about an epidemic of youth vaping. In addition to exposing users to nicotine, vaping contains metals and chemicals that are inhaled into the lungs. The long-term health effects of vaping remain unclear, and researchers have raised particular concerns about its impact on still-developing adolescent brains.

A newer concern has been a wave of lung-related deaths linked to vaping. Some families have sued, faulting JUUL for those deaths; other families have sued over their children’s nicotine addiction.

Contours of a Lawsuit

Much of the lawsuit documents JUUL’s origins and extensive social-media reach, which, it alleges, the company has used to target its products at youth. It’s also created fruit- and candy-flavored versions likely to appeal to youth. (Those flavors are banned from traditional cigarettes, but the prohibitions do not currently cover e-cigarettes.)

“Like its Big Tobacco predecessors, the focus of JUUL’s initial marketing was on colorful ad campaigns using eye-catching designs and youth-oriented imagery with themes of being cool, carefree, stylish, attractive, sexy, and popular—unusual themes and images if one’s objective is to promote an adult-only smoking-cessation device,” the complaint reads.

JUUL has said in the past that it does not target teens in its marketing, and has taken steps to limit online sales and in barring some flavors from being sold inside convenience stores.

The specific educational argument in the case amounts to the idea that the boom of youth vaping is creating a public nuisance affecting public schools’ operation and performance.

Teachers and administrators have had to modify school property and operations to detect vaping and then alter their discipline policies to respond to students who have been caught vaping. Student absences are rising, curbing funding for the district, which is based on student attendance rates. Funding has been diverted towards prevention and treatment and away from lower class sizes and better curriculum materials.

“It is not an overstatement to say that JUUL has changed the educational experience of students across California,” the complaint reads.

Education Week has reported extensively that schools have struggled to respond to the vaping trend. For one thing, it can be harder to grasp the extent of the problem: Many Juul and other vaping devices are small, easily concealed, or resemble USB flash drives. Schools are under pressure to curb the use of e-cigarettes by schoolchildren while preventing other youths from experimenting with them.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. JUUL did not immediately return a request for comment.

Photo: Juul, a popular e-cigarette product sold on the market.— © TNS via ZUMA Wire

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.