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Charleston County School District files lawsuit against e-cigarette maker Juul

Laing Middle vaping wall (copy)

A decorated wall featuring facts on vaping and electronic cigarettes in a hallway near the front office of Laing Middle School in Mount Pleasant on Sept. 20, 2019. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Charleston County School District is joining a growing number of school systems and other groups resorting to legal action to stop the spread of e-cigarettes among teenagers.

Charleston district officials filed suit independently on Feb. 25, accusing Juul Labs, which is part of Philip Morris USA’s Altria Group, of purposefully marketing a dangerous product to children and seeking monetary relief.

Greenville County schools and Lexington One have already pursued legal action against Juul. Richland One is considering the issue.

A separate class-action suit is being managed by the law firm Berger Montague.

Drugwatch, a Florida-based consumer advocacy group, reports that more than 750 class-action suits have been filed against Juul as of July, with many claiming its marketing practices target minors. Company officials have denied the allegations.

"We will continue to reset the vapor category in the U.S. and seek to earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, legislators, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes," said Austin Finan, a Juul spokesman.

"As part of that process, the company reduced its product portfolio, halted television, print, and digital product advertising and submitted a Premarket Tobacco Product Application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration including comprehensive scientific evidence to support the harm reduction potential of its products and data-driven measures to address underage use," he wrote. "Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers. We will respond to the allegations through the appropriate legal channels."

School officials and their attorneys say that vaping nicotine-laden products is harmful to students and has created problems in the schools.

Carl Solomon of Solomon Law Group, one of the firms representing the Charleston school district, said this suit was filed independently, and not as part of the class action, so the district could determine how best to proceed should the effort founder or fail. All such suits in South Carolina will be part of what’s called a “multi-district litigation” process which centralizes legal discovery efforts, he said.

The lawsuit addresses a “public nuisance," Solomon said. Problems caused by external agents that divert educators from their mission and cost taxpayers money are being introduced into the school environment and require “abatement.”

The lawsuit seeks to stop Juul from marketing to students; to require the company to be proactive about preventing teens from using vaping products in the first place; and to force Juul to provide funding to address education, addiction treatment, monitoring and counseling — all extra burdens the schools would not have had to cope with if vaping among underaged teenagers was not so rampant.

Appropriate financial compensation would be determined in the courts, but Solomon said his calculations suggest that the equivalent of one full-time employee would be needed in every middle school and high school in the district.

In 2019 and into early 2020, federal regulators conducted a sweeping investigation into the safety of various vaping products. A February 2020 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found more than 2,800 people across the country were hospitalized because of lung complications tied to e-cigarettes, with 68 deaths.

Findings published by the FDA in April 2020 warned against using any vape products containing vitamin E acetate or similar additives.

"FDA and CDC recommend that people not use THC-containing e-cigarette, or vaping, products, particularly from informal sources like friends, or family, or in-person or online dealers," the agency said. 

Although federal regulators were particularly concerned by vitamin E acetate and other additives in THC-containing products, the FDA said, "no one substance" was found in all samples they tested.

A 2019 survey of tobacco use among youths concluded that 22 percent of South Carolina teens used e-cigarettes in the 30 days before the survey was conducted.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com.

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