An East Tennessee small town school district has grown so frustrated with the growing epidemic of vaping among their students that officials decided to sue the e-cigarette manufacturers.
Officials with Alcoa City School in Blount County said the vaping epidemic had reached their 2,095 students to the extent that they were now hiring monitors to deter the activity. Three-day suspensions being doled out for first time offending students have largely been successful, but officials realized the problem wasn’t the students: It’s the e-cigarette companies that market their products to underage children.
Alcoa City School board members voted to join a lawsuit against JUUL Labs and Altria for their role in popularizing e-cigarettes and vaping among underage children, adding that schools were now compelled to include anti-vaping measures in their school budgets.
“Enough is enough,” said Rebecca Stone, principal of Alcoa High School.
The Knoxville-based law firm Owings, Wilson & Coleman, is representing the school district but is part of a larger legal team representing 140 schools in the lawsuit against JUUL. According to their lawyer, John Owings, Alcoa will have its own case but it will be “part of several cases across the country.”
Nationwide, school systems have also filed lawsuits and accused JUUL of creating a whole new generation of e-smokers, leaving schools with the burden to combat underage smoking. Alcoa City Schools is the first school system from Tennessee to sue JUUL, but Stone said other school systems are “discussing it and will be on board soon.”
For some school officials, the lawsuit is a way to recoup finances, but Alcoa City Schools is “taking a stand” against the company, said Stone. She added that school officials wanted to show students what they were willing to do to protect them.
The plaintiffs in the suit claim JUUL pushed an aggressive and fraudulent marketing campaign that targeted youth and teens through a wide variety of flavored vaping products and vaping devices that were easy to conceal from authority figures. Plaintiffs also accused JUUL of not properly informing customers that their products contained nicotine, leading young smokers to become addicted as a consequence. According to the CDC, some e-cigarette labels have no labels about their nicotine content, while other e-cigarettes marketed as containing 0% nicotine in fact did contain nicotine.
“They marketed [e-cigarettes] as a safer option and it is not,” said Stone.
This isn’t the first time JUUL has been in hot water. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to the e-cigarette company JUUL and an investigation found that JUUL’s marketing practices had made unproven claims that their products were safe and “would be better for kids to use,” according to the investigation.
And an investigation by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which included reviewing tens of thousands of internal documents, concluded that the company “deliberately targeted children in order to become the nation’s largest seller of e-cigarettes.”
JUUL has since said that they have never marketed to children, according to NPR.
From 2019 to 2020, Alcoa School officials confiscated 28 e-cigarettes containing the cannabis-chemical THC and nicotine. According to Stone, students would often use bathrooms to smoke and Alcoa City Schools are looking into buying security cameras and devices that can detect vaping and send a text message to administrators.
For Stone, her crusade against underage smoking is personal. Her father died of lung cancer, and the growing market of e-cigarettes stands in stark contrast to the growing number of studies about the long-term effects of e-cigarettes.
Beyond the dangers of nicotine, other e-cigarette ingredients are harmful to the lungs. Children have also been poisoned due to swallowing, breathing or absorbing e-cigarette liquid, and approximately 50% of calls to poison controls centers are for children 5 years or younger.
“I think anyone who knows about JUUL and vaping realizes that this is not a good situation. This is not a good decision that our young people are making, and it’s important that we go straight to the source,” said Stone.
She hopes the growing number of schools standing against the company will force JUUL to revisit their product, and personally wants to see the product completely off the market.
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