ST. GEORGE — At Tuesday’s meeting of the Washington County School District Board of Education, board members voted unanimously to join a class-action lawsuit against JUUL Labs Inc., the largest electronic cigarette company in the U.S.
The legal action is gathering schools from across the nation, including the Tooele, Provo, Ogden and Canyons school districts in Utah. The lawsuit against Juul alleges that the e-cigarette company downplayed the dangers of vaping and targeted minors in its marketing.
Richard Holmes, assistant superintendent for secondary education, presented the action item to the board Tuesday and recommended that the district select the law firm Kirton McConkie for representation.
“We have issues with students vaping in the district, it’s no secret,” Holmes said. “We work with (Southwest Utah Public Health Department) to curb that and educate our students. Our recommendation is that we do join for the benefit of our students – their safety, their well-being and their health.”
Holmes told St. George News he could not provide exact figures or estimates for e-cigarette use among district students, but the group of greatest concern was middle and intermediate school students due to the rise of vaping in those grades.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among youth since 2014, though vaping has been declining since 2019. Nationwide, about 1 in 20 middle schoolers (4.7%) and 1 in 5 high schoolers (19.6%) reported using e-cigarettes within the past 30 days.
Board member Craig Seegmiller made the motion to join the lawsuit, but board member Terry Hutchinson asked that an amendment be made to the motion. Hutchinson wanted to clarify the motion by seeking confirmation from the law firm that the district will not be liable for attorney’s fees and adding the caveat that the district will join pending review from its own legal counsel.
If the plaintiffs prevail, the money awarded in the lawsuit will be distributed (after paying legal fees) among the participating districts for use in anti-drug educational materials, training and even vape detectors for schools.
“The district incurs a fair amount of expense in educating our students and also for our employees who have health issues due to vaping,” said board President Kelly Blake. “To be able to recoup some of those costs is only prudent on our part as we join in on this (lawsuit).”
Juan Bravo, president of the Utah Vapor Business Association, told St. George News that local businesses and industry members also have a vested interest in preventing the sale of tobacco products to minors. In addition to supporting a 2020 law that established harsher penalties for retailers found guilty of selling vapor products to minors, the vapor association encourages strict and careful identification at retail locations.
“The UVBA stance has always been that this is an adult product for adult users,” Bravo said. “A lot of us are parents, and I wouldn’t want my child vaping. There is a place for the products on the market, but it’s just not for children.”
As far as schools are concerned, Bravo said he hoped that – along with the lawsuit – school districts take the time to review their own policies for addressing the possession and use of vapor products on school property. He also advocated for increased enforcement of existing Utah laws as the “most effective youth prevention tactic.”
The case against Juul Labs is set to begin in March 2022 and has been filed in U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California where Juul is headquartered. The next meeting of the board of education will be held on Sept. 20.
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