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Local schools, state politicians seek solutions in teen vaping epidemic

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 The Olathe Public Schools in Kansas and Three Village Central School District in New York in filing lawsuits in federal court against JUUL Labs, Inc., alleging that the e-cigarette company deliberately marketed products to underage consumers. The Olathe Public Schools filed its suit on Sept. 27; Francis Howell and Three Village Central filed their suits on Sept. 30.

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 legal age to purchase vaping devices is 18; however, that age limit increases to 21 in 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 [its] schools” and that use of the products “frustrates [the district’s] ability to achieve its educational goals.”

Cindy Ormsby, from the Clayton-based law firm of Curtis, Heinz, Garrett & O’Keefe, P.C., represents the Francis Howell School District. She said she was contacted by the Kansas City law firm of Wagstaff & Cartmell, LLP, which is coordinating the district suits. Ormsby was asked if she had any clients experiencing vaping-related issues, which resulted in reaching out 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 marketed to underage users who were legally too young to buy the products, the [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, 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 issues, 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.

In the Parkway School District, a group called Teen Voice for Change provides youth prevention efforts related to substance abuse at each of the district’s four high schools. This past summer, seven group members attended the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America Conference in Dallas to discuss methods of combating teenage vaping on a local level. According to the 2018 Missouri Student Survey, about 16.9% of Parkway youths had used an e-cigarette in the 30 days before the survey was conducted. The average for Missouri youths was 15.3%.

“[Our] average is higher than the one for the entire state,” Julie Knost, youth programs coordinator for the Alliance for Healthy Communities, said. The coalition partners with the Parkway School District.

In June 2019, Knost and a Teens for Change participant from Parkway West visited shops along Manchester Road from Clarkson Road to Interstate 270 that either specialized in or sold vaping supplies. The goal was to visit with each and provide mandated signage and educational materials, such as ID checking guides.

“We told the stores, ‘These kids have to be getting them somewhere, and we know in St. Louis County [the legal age] is 21,’” Knost said. “Every store owner was nice. They asked questions and thanked us for the materials. Some places even asked for more than one copy of the ID checking guide. One place even said, ‘Hey, we just hired some new employees. We can use this with them.’”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,080 cases of vaping-related lung injuries had been reported across the country as of Oct. 1; that includes 22 reports of vaping-related illnesses and, as of Oct. 4, one death in Missouri. Most of the reports involve individuals ages 15-24.

“Someone will start vaping, and they won’t think about the addiction,” Loren Aladdin, Parkway South student and Teen Voice for Change member, said. “They don’t comprehend it, or they don’t think it’ll happen to them. High schoolers are a big target, but this surprised me, even middle schoolers are becoming addicted.”

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

On Oct. 15, Gov. Mike Parson gave a press conference on teen vaping trends. [Official release photo]

On Oct. 15, Gov. Mike Parson signed an executive order [No. 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 those departments to review evidence regarding the illness and fatality cases and the effects of vaping-related injuries, specifically among youth, and create educational messaging to counter the vaping industry’s 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,” Parson said at an Oct. 15 news conference. “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 executive order demanded the development and launch of a campaign within 30 days.

Talking to teens

The marketing techniques originally caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration [FDA], which 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.”

Tanjim Himika, Parkway South student and Teen Voice for Change member, agreed. 

“When you smoke regular cigarettes, [your lungs] get dark and damaged, but you wouldn’t be able to notice that. But with people who smoke e-cigarettes, they’re starting to see things like lumps in their gums or realize it’s hard for them to concentrate,” Himika said. She said students are seeing increased outreach and awareness in recent years.

Teen Voice for Change member Asad Siddiqui, also noted that the influx of medical studies and news coverage about e-cigarette usage has created a building surge of awareness at the student level.

“It’s sad. People are dying,” Siddiqui said. “I don’t think people were realizing what it could do to you until they saw it happening to people. Now, I can go on Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok and see stuff about vaping. People will say, ‘I know this person that vapes, and now they have this serious condition.’ I can see the spread of anti-vaping on social media ever since we started to see these more dangerous cases of people who vape.”

Himika agreed.

“Before, we didn’t know what was inside the e-cigarettes,” Himika said. “People just used them and had no idea. I’m glad there are studies … It’s like a wake-up call to stop JUULing, because it’s going to affect you in the future and you’re not going to live as long.”

Students and politicians are not the only individuals calling for changes. Entities like the Rockwood Drug-Free Coalition also are vying for increased federal regulation and a more stringent enforcement of the age limit for purchasing e-cigarette products.

“We’d like to see current rules regarding FDA oversight of e-cigarette products be used to reduce the number of products on the market and ensure their safety,” Lili Schliesser, of the Rockwood Drug-Free Coalition, said. “We’d like to see the ATC [the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control] and law enforcement performing compliance checks on businesses that we suspect are selling to teens. Beyond that, we support the development of rules and legislation that will help prevent students from ever trying e-cigarettes.”

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