As a southeast Florida school district decided to take up legal arms against a vaping industry giant for pushing its devices on students, local education officials are hesitant to follow suit.
“It’s not something we’ve been making a focal point of,” said Mike Mullen, assistant superintendent for the Citrus County School District, “but we have seen increases in vaping.”
Palm Beach County School Board members agreed at their Wednesday afternoon meeting to proceed with civil action against Juul Labs and similar e-cigarette makers.
Their initial claim is to seek recovery for damages connected with Juul’s marketing and sale of vaping devices to students.
Mullen said there hasn't been a push to bring a similar vote to board members, and there has yet to be an invitation from Palm Beach to join a class-action lawsuit.
If Citrus County schools did have an opportunity to participate in court, district staff would show its board how much time and costs have gone toward enforcing vape-related offenses on campuses, Mullen said.
From there, board members have to weigh the pros and cons in committing to a legal fight that could become expensive and lengthy.
“It could be years before anyone sees anything good from it,” Mullen said. “Everything comes down to being a fiscal decision.”
Mullen said he doesn’t believe vaping is causing a hardship for local school staff, but added that warranted alarm has been raised over the recent health risks associated with vaping.
If the Palm Beach School District reaches either a successful verdict or settlement, legal costs would be taken from what’s recovered — 75 percent to the district, 25 percent to lawyers, according to its board’s agenda.
However, if the district isn’t awarded a recovery, it still won’t be liable.
In Florida, it’s illegal to sell e-cigarettes to people less than 18 years of age. An April report from the Florida Department of Health showed that 25 percent of high school students said they vaped in 2018.
Mullen said school administrators typically suspended students caught vaping nicotine, and/or contact parents to refer their child to services to help them quit smoking. Punishments vary based on a student’s disciplinary record.
If a student vaped CBD or THC oils — byproducts of marijuana — they are expelled under the district’s zero-tolerance policy, Mullen said.
According to the district, there have been 100 cases of vape offenses reported from Aug. 13 to Oct. 30; eight vaping cases involved marijuana.
Citrus County School Board members Sandy Counts and Linda Powers said they’d like the district to be cautious in going to court because the prevalence of vaping hasn’t overburdened schools.
Powers said board members should also broaden discussions to include other harmful substances and devices.
“Just leaping in doesn’t work, and usually you get it wrong,” she said.
Thomas Kennedy, board chairman, said he’s interested in learning more about how the school district can participate in court.
“This is an epidemic,” he said about vaping. “It is taking up an amount of resources if you to talk to our deans.”
Kennedy said Juul targets the youth with flavored nicotine vape liquids, social media campaigns and discreet device designs.
“When you make bubblegum flavor, candy flavored vape, you’re not doing that to target the 50-year-olds,” he said.
School board member Doug Dodd said he'd like to get a better understanding on how vaping is impacting schools and staff.
“How much we know, how big the issue is at school would be a good thing for the administration to bring to the board,” he said. “We just don’t know all the long-term effects.”
School board member Ginger Bryant said she’d go with staff's recommendations about how to proceed, but noted she’s not happy with students being enticed.
“That’s what gets my dander up,” she said.
Board members said they recognize the harm vaping could do to someone’s body.
“With the number of deaths, I can’t believe the parents of our school children would even allow it,” Counts said.
Dodd said parents with children who become sick as a possible result of vaping should look into whether they can open a class-action case against Juul and others.
“It should be related to a health matter,” he said, adding that vaping should not be advertised as a safe substitute to traditional tobacco products.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,604 people in the U.S. have reported cases of lung illness from e-cigarette/vaping use; 34 deaths were confirmed nationwide.
Among patients, 14 percent were less than 18 years old, and 40 percent were between 18 and 24.
Several other school districts across the U.S. are also suing Juul, which has also seen the recent resignation and replacement of its CEO.
Counts said “it might be moot” to sue a company that’s already facing financial and legal battles on multiple fronts.
“You can’t get blood out of a turnip,” she said.
Counts added that class-action lawsuits don’t always benefit the plaintiffs involved, even if they’re successful, and doesn’t want to compare Citrus County’s school district to others’ situations.
“We’re not Palm Beach County,” she said. “Our kids are different.”