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Lexington school district joins Juul lawsuit, status of nearby e-cigarette plant unclear

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Vaping Schools (copy)

FILE - In this April 11, 2018, file photo, a high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

COLUMBIA — A Midlands school district has become the first in South Carolina to join a class-action lawsuit against vape manufacturer Juul, alleging that the district has suffered added disruptions to discipline from e-cigarettes.

Lexington School District 1, which serves much of the county's geographic area, filed suit on Oct. 2, joining districts from around the country, along with municipalities and some individuals that are suing Juul.

Juul launched an assembly plant in Lexington County last year to make e-cigarettes, a project that was expected to employ about 500 people.

Since then, Juul has been cutting back its operations amid increasing regulation and scrutiny of its practices.

In September, Juul began its second round of companywide layoffs, with almost half its employees considered for job cuts, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company has some of its work in assembly plants such as the one in Lexington County done by employees of subsidiary companies, not Juul.

A visit to the plant on Wednesday found that almost no workers were on site. The plant is near Columbia Metropolitan Airport, which situates it in a different school district, Lexington 2.

Juul did not comment on the plant's status.

Earlier this year, South Carolina joined 39 other states in a probe of Juul's marketing practices. The investigation is focused on whether the sales and marketing practices of the San Francisco-based company were responsible for a massive increase in use of vaping products by teens.

In its lawsuit, District 1 alleges that Juul has promoted a product that was likely to become addictive to teens, including the now-discontinued use of appealing flavors to create a new generation of nicotine users. 

The case is proceeding in federal court in California, where Juul is based. 

The lawsuit reports that discipline referrals due to vaping in the district more than doubled in the span of one school year, rising from 147 to 358 during 2018-2019. 

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Juul's design means that the devices are used sometimes during class and leaves hazardous waste behind for the district to handle, the lawsuit alleges.

In response, Juul repeated the corporate message that it has been communicating in the past year: it is a product only aimed at adults to help them quit regular cigarettes, and Juul has altered its product lines and marketing to adhere to that goal. 

"Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers," the company said in a statement. "We will respond to the allegations in the complaint through the appropriate legal channels."

Juul did not comment on the current state of its Lexington County facility.

The primary objective of the lawsuit isn't a major recovery of money, though the district is incurring added expenses as a result of the explosion of e-cigarette use among its students, said attorney David Duff, who is representing the district.

"The major goal is to try to put a stop to this," Duff said.

The district is not spending taxpayer dollars to move forward with the suit. Instead, Duff said, a contingent fee to pay for the filings would be deducted from any cash award.

Such massive class-action suits generally take considerable time even if a resolution is negotiated, so any possible verdict or payout could be a long ways off, Duff said.

No other S.C. districts have filed to join as yet, he said.

Lexington 1 is far from alone in dealing with skyrocketing e-cigarette use. According to a 2019 survey of youth tobacco use, 22 percent of South Carolina teens reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

Jessica Holdman contributed to this report.

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