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School Districts Sue Juul, Saying Student Vaping Drains Resources

LA Johnson

Schools across the country are so fed up with students vaping on campus that they're suing the e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs.

Multiple districts filed lawsuits on Monday, including school systems in Olathe, Kan.; St. Charles, Mo.; Long Island, N.Y.; and La Conner, Wash. Three of those suits charge that Juul has hooked a generation of young smokers with its sweet flavors, placing a burden on schools.

"You can't tell me that having flavors like bubblegum and grape is not trying to entice our kids to do something they know is unhealthy," said Shannon Wickliffe, the president of the Olathe Public Schools Board of Education. "I understand it as a business strategy, but I think it's kind of disgusting that you would try to addict our children knowing the health consequences."

In a statement, Juul officials said they have never marketed to kids and have taken steps to limit access to products for anyone under 21.

The lawsuits come as the number of patients with vaping-related illnesses continues to climb and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has intensified its warnings about the risks of vaping.

The number of youth smokers has also been increasing. The CDC estimates that the number of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes rose by more than 50% from 2017 to 2018 — from 2.1 million to 3.6 million.

Kirk Goza, a lawyer for Olathe Public Schools and two other school districts suing Juul, told member station KCUR in an email that because vape pens are easy to conceal, students often bring them to school, only to get caught vaping in the bathrooms.

"Schools have been forced to install special sensors in bathrooms, remove bathroom doors, ban flash drives, hire more staff and provide programs to help students deal with nicotine addiction," Goza said. "This does not take into account the institutional energy spent monitoring and enforcing policies to try and deal with the problem."

Olathe is seeking unspecified damages for the costs it has incurred trying to combat vaping in schools.

It's not just middle and high school students vaping in Olathe, said John Allison, the superintendent there — the youngest Olathe student to get caught with a vape pen was in fourth grade. Allison said more often than not, parents know their children are smoking e-cigarettes and many even purchased the devices that are confiscated at school. One parent even called Allison to ask for the vape pen back.

"The parent was very upset because they had purchased it for their student, who — they felt it helped calm them down. They couldn't understand why we were concerned," Allison said. "I had to educate them. It contains nicotine. It's dangerous. It's addictive. And they were mortified."

If the school district is able to recoup anything from Juul, Allison said, he would like to see it go toward smoking-cessation classes for students who need help quitting e-cigarettes.

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3

Elle covers education for KCUR. The best part of her job is talking to students. Before coming to KCUR in 2014, Elle covered Indiana education policy for NPR’s StateImpact project. Her work covering Indiana’s exit from the Common Core was nationally recognized with an Edward R. Murrow award. Her work at KCUR has been recognized by the Missouri Broadcasters Association and the Kansas City Press Club. She is a graduate of the University Of Missouri School Of Journalism. Elle regularly tweets photos of her dog, Kingsley. There is a wounded Dr. Ian Malcolm bobblehead on her desk.