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School Districts File Lawsuits Against E-Cigarette Maker Juul Labs


A lot of school officials are fed up with students vaping on campus. At least five school districts have filed lawsuits against the nation's leading e-cigarette maker, Juul Labs. They argued Juul is marketing to teenagers in the way that cigarette companies once did. Here's Ryan Delaney of St. Louis Public Radio.

RYAN DELANEY, BYLINE: Assistant Principal Jennifer Wilhelm says lunch is primetime for catching students vaping at Orchard Farm High School in suburban St. Louis. Wilhelm says it's been hard for teachers to keep up.

JENNIFER WILHELM: The biggest thing for me was not really recognizing how much time it would take and how many kids. It seemed to really take off like wildfire. You know, we sort of heard about it. And then all of a sudden, it was everywhere.

DELANEY: Some vaping devices look like USB flash drives and are easy to hide from teachers. And since the vapor doesn't linger the way cigarette smoke does, vaping can be hard to detect. So over the summer, the school spent a few thousand dollars on chemical detectors that notify Wilhelm when someone is vaping in the bathroom.

A neighboring school system has decided that vaping has become such a burden, the e-cigarette company Juul should help shoulder the cost. The Francis Howell School District is suing Juul, as are school systems in Kansas, Washington state and New York. Those suits claim that Juul has hooked a generation of young smokers with its sweet flavors.

SHANNON WICKLIFFE: You can't tell me that, you know, having flavors like bubble gum and grape is not trying to entice our kids to do something that they know is not healthy for them.

DELANEY: That's Shannon Wickliffe, school board president of Olathe Public Schools - one of the Kansas districts that filed the suit against Juul. A Juul Labs spokesperson told NPR that Juul is taking, quote, "aggressive" actions to reduce the appeal to young people. Juul maintained that its mission is to give adults an alternative to tobacco. Last month, the company also agreed to stop advertising in the U.S.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes rose by 1.5 million from 2017 to 2018. In St. Charles County, Mo., the legal vaping age is 18.

But Kaleb Foster (ph), a senior at Francis Howell Central High School, says that hasn't stopped his classmates from developing a habit.

KALEB FOSTER: It's really bad when you see people going through, like, withdrawals, like, in the middle of class, like, when people have to take, like, regular bathroom breaks or go out and get nicotine in their system.

DELANEY: He says he doesn't vape, but he adds it's not hard to get a hold of Juul cartridges, even if you're under age. The school districts want reimbursement for the vaping sensors and smoking cessation programs they've purchased for students. They also want payment for the extra staffing it's taken to catch kids and then counsel them.

For NPR News, I'm Ryan Delaney in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "FINALLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Delaney works on the Innovation Trail project - covering technology, economic development, startups and other issues relating to New York's innovation economy.