BRISTOL, Va. (WJLH) — Southwest Virginia school systems are considering joining a class-action lawsuit against JUUL, the leading manufacturer of e-cigarettes in the country, following an increase in student vaping.
According to data released by the U.S. Surgeon General, more than 3.6 million youth reported using e-cigarettes in 2018, including 1 in 5 high school students. That represents a 78 percent increase since 2017.
“It’s a growing problem. We usually find one [JUUL] a day or every other day and I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Virginia High School Principal Ronnie Collins.
Abingdon-based attorney Doug Kilgore is part of the group of attorneys reaching out to school systems in “virtually every state,” including Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Kilgore said the same group is representing a number of Southwest Virginia localities in lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
“The impact opioids had on localities is going to be very similar to the impact vaping has on school divisions,” said Bristol, Virginia City Schools Superintendent Keith Perrigan.
A resolution authorizing the litigation provided to local school systems cited a congressional review of internal company documents that concluded JUUL targeted children as young as eight years old and recruited thousands of online influencers to market their vaping products to teens.
“The fruit flavors bring kids in and once the nicotine is in your body, you’re hooked,” said Collins.
The class-action lawsuit is intended to help districts recover costs associated with student vaping.
Some school systems across the country have already spent money installing chemical detection devices in bathrooms to alert administrators of vaping. Others have implemented cessation programs and bolstered staff to monitor usage.
“At this time, we have not encountered additional costs,” said Wise County Schools Superintendent Greg Mullins. “We’re continuing to monitor halls and restrooms as we’ve traditionally done.”
“If this problem continues to grow and our administrations have to continue to deal with it more and more, I think there is going to have to be some mechanism to make sure we have the resources it takes to keep students safe,” said Perrigan.
Even though school systems wouldn’t lose any money if JUUL wins the case, both Perrigan and Mullins said they’re doing more research before making a formal recommendation to their school boards.
“We want to make sure that we don’t become involved in something that has some potential to be helpful but at the same time it could involve us in a long, drawn-out process,” said Mullins.
Kilgore said none of the Southwest Virginia school districts they’ve contacted have opted in or out of the lawsuit at this time.
School Boards in Wise County and Bristol, Virginia could make a decision as early as November, according to Perrigan and Mullins.
In a statement, a spokesperson for JUUL Labs said,
“We never designed our marketing to appeal to youth and do not want any non-nicotine users to try our products as they exist to help adult smokers find an alternative to combustible cigarettes. We need to urgently address underage use of vapor products and earn the trust of regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders. That is why we are focusing on taking aggressive actions to reduce youth usage of our products, working through the FDA’s PMTA process and supporting and complying with FDA’s final guidance on flavored products once effective.”