ST. CHARLES — The Francis Howell School District claims e-cigarette maker Juul Labs has harmed its students through deceptive marketing and misconduct, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court.
In a highly unusual move, the school district has joined several others across the country, including Olathe (Kansas) Unified outside Kansas City, to sue the company over a concern for student health.
Juul’s vaping products cause “significant and ongoing nicotine abuse and addiction by students at (Francis Howell) schools,” according to the lawsuit. Vaping at school “frustrates (the district’s) ability to achieve its educational goals.”
There were 54 nicotine-related infractions among students at Francis Howell five years ago, compared to 248 last year, including three cases at elementary schools. The district has hired additional staff to monitor bathrooms and hallways for vaping, and purchased a new smoking cessation curriculum, the lawsuit states.
Included in the lawsuit are examples of colorful ads from Juul that feature attractive young people vaping and promoting launch parties for the brand.
A statement from Juul in response to the Francis Howell lawsuit reads in part, “Our product has always only been intended to be a viable alternative for the one billion current adult smokers in the world. We have never marketed to youth and do not want any non-nicotine users to try our products. We have launched an aggressive action plan to combat underage use as it is antithetical to our mission.”
The company shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts and stopped selling flavored vaping pods, according to the statement.
While the potential for monetary damages might be smaller compared to similar suits from states and cities against gun, tobacco and opioid makers, the lawsuit against Juul sends a message about the school district’s role in the community, said law professor Robert Gatter of St. Louis University.
“They have an obligation to protect the welfare of their students,” Gatter said.
According to the 2018 Missouri Student Survey, one in five middle and high school students report using e-cigarettes, more than alcohol or any other drug. But local surveys show the real numbers could be much higher, including a recent poll at Parkway West High School that found more than 80% of students had tried vaping.
School leaders have said vaping is hard to manage, in part because the scent can be mistaken for lotion or perfume, and the vaping pods are small enough to carry in a shoe or on a key chain.
“They can vape anywhere. They’ve had kids vaping in class,” said Cindy Ormsby, a Clayton-based attorney who represents the Francis Howell School Board. “Kids who would never smoke a cigarette are vaping.”
The lawsuit comes as an outbreak of vaping-related lung disease has been linked to 1,080 illnesses and 20 deaths across the U.S. this year, including one each in Missouri and Illinois, according to federal health officials.
Of the 22 cases reported in Missouri, 14 are among teenagers and young adults ages 15 to 24.
The illnesses have not been linked to Juul products or any other e-cigarette manufacturer. Most of the people who were sickened reported using vaping products that contain vitamin E or THC, an ingredient in marijuana, which Juul does not sell.
Anti-smoking advocates applauded Francis Howell’s lawsuit against the company. It’s telling that the first school district in Missouri to sue over vaping is in St. Charles County, where the legal age to buy tobacco products is 18, compared to 21 in St. Louis city and county, said Ginny Chadwick, the Columbia-based western regional director for the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation.
“Everybody is scrambling to figure out how to curb the increase in use of e-cigarette products,” Chadwick said. “This has happened overnight, reversing decades of trends of reducing nicotine use among our youth.”