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Local schools, state politicians seek solutions in teen vaping epidemic

Gov. Mike Parson enacted an executive order on vaping Oct. 15. [Official photo]

Three U.S. school districts, one of which resides in St. Charles County, are in the process of suing e-cigarette manufacturer JUUL Labs, Inc. on the grounds that the company’s products are putting students in danger.

The Francis Howell School District joined with The Olathe Public Schools in Kansas and the Three Village Central School District in New York in filing a lawsuit in federal court against JUUL Labs, Inc., alleging that the e-cigarette company deliberately marketed products to underage consumers. The first suit by the district was filed as early as Sept. 27 by The Olathe Public Schools in Kansas. Francis Howell filed its suit on Sept. 30, the same day as the New York’s district.

All three claim that JUUL Lab’s use of social media and younger-looking models deliberately targeted a teenage audience too young to legally purchase e-cigarette products. In the state of Missouri, the age limit to purchase vaping devices is 18. Users must be 21 is St. Louis and St. Charles counties.

Francis Howell alleged in its complaint that JUUL’s vaping products have caused “significant and ongoing nicotine abuse and addiction by students at [Francis Howell] schools” and that use of the products “frustrates [the district’s] ability to achieve its educational goals.”

According to Cindy Ormsby, the district attorney from the Clayton-based law firm of Curtis, Heinz, Garrett & O’Keefe, P.C., she was contacted by the Kansas City law firm Wagstaff & Cartmell, LLP, who is coordinating the district suits. Ormsby was asked if she had any clients experiencing vaping-related issues, which resulted in outreach to the Francis Howell School District and verification of the districtwide trend of underage e-cigarette use.

“The basis of the lawsuit is, because JUUL Labs, Inc. marketed to underage users who were legally too young to buy the products, the [Francis Howell School District] is now having to deal with the aftermath of that decision because the kids are vaping and addicted to nicotine,” Ormsby said. “They’re vaping in the classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, and resources are having to be taken from the classroom teachers and the administrators in order to deal with the issue.”

According to the official complaint filed by the district, instances of this youth-based marketing including the distribution of free JUUL Starter-Kits, youth-oriented flavors and social media influencers to deceptively market products to teenage audiences that has resulted in more frequent use in school environments and school funds dedicated to enforcing district tobacco policies.

“It’s taking money and time to deal with these things, and they would like reimbursement for dealing with this for both past, present and future issue, because we know this issue isn’t going to go away tomorrow just because they stopped their advertising,” Ormsby said.

Other districts have noticed similar trends in e-cigarette use.

While not filing a suit, the Fort Zumwalt School District also reported an uptake in e-cigarette offenses on school property. About 250 incidents have been documented so far in 2019.

“It’s gone up considerably,” Dr. Bernie DuBray, superintendent of the Fort Zumwalt School District, said. “I think we had a handle on cigarette smoking. It seemed like that was kind of dying [out], but the electronic cigarettes have been a new, creative way of doing it.”

A majority of the 250 incidents were documented in school bathrooms. However, according to DuBray, Fort Zumwalt had avoided incurring costs from the increased rate of teenage vaping due to regular patrolling by school staff.

“We haven’t hired additional hall monitors or anything because we already had them in place,” DuBray said. “They’re doing their monitoring of the halls, keeping their eyes open and seeing if there’s any type of vaping going on, just like what’s going on at Francis Howell, but we haven’t incurred any additional costs for vaping by itself.”

Smoking or the use of tobacco products is prohibited on all school property at the Fort Zumwalt and Francis Howell school districts.

In addition to an increase in violations, the rate of vaping-related death has also increased on the state level.

As of Oct. 1, 1,080 cases of vaping-related lung injuries have been reported across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Oct. 4, there have been 22 reports of vaping-related illnesses in Missouri, including one death. Most of the reports involve individuals ages 15-24.

Due to the growing epidemic, action has spread from the school district to the State Capitol.

On Oct. 15, Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed Executive Order 19-18 regarding the use of vaping devices among youth in Missouri.

The order directs the Departments of Health and Senior Services, Elementary and Secondary Education and Public Safety to use existing resources to develop a statewide campaign to educate Missouri’s youth about vaping. The order further directs that the departments review evidence regarding the cases and effects of vaping-related injuries, specifically among youth, and create educational messaging to counter vaping industry marketing practices.

“As Governor, our future generation is very important to me. Despite the laws currently in place, there has been a rapid increase in vaping among our youth,” Governor Parson said at an Oct. 15 news conference on the order. “People across the country are being hospitalized, some even losing their lives, with links to vaping. This is truly an epidemic, and it is critical that actions be taken to protect the health and well-being of Missouri’s youth.”

The marketing techniques originally caught the Food and Drug Administration [FDA], who announced an investigation of JUUL Labs in April 2018. On Sept. 9, 2019, the FDA sent a warning letter to JUUL Labs regarding its marketing of unauthorized modified tobacco products and its outreach to youth via labeling and advertising. The letter also expressed concern over how its advertising intentionally presented consumers with beliefs that e-cigarette devices were a lower risk alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes without the presence of evidence or data backing up the claims.

“Regardless of where products like e-cigarettes fall on the continuum of tobacco product risk, the law is clear that, before marketing tobacco products for reduced risk, companies must demonstrate with scientific evidence that their specific product does in fact pose less risk or is less harmful. JUUL has ignored the law, and very concerningly, has made some of these statements in school to our nation’s youth,” Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D., said in an official release.

According to Ormsby, the health impacts of JUUL and e-cigarette devices are still being studied.

“I have talked to a pulmonologist who says that the ramifications are significant,” Ormsby said. “When you vape, you actually inhale moisture inside your lungs where moisture is not supposed to be. So, there’s significant lung damage on a scale they haven’t seen before and they don’t know exactly what they’re dealing with. We don’t know. Obviously, marketing to underage kids should be ceased.”

The Executive Order demands the development and launch of a campaign within 30 days.

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