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La Conner School District lawsuit claims JUUL spurred vaping epidemic

The La Conner School District claims JUUL’s actions threaten a decline in tobacco use among youth, and the district has been adversely affected by teen vaping.

La Conner School District filed a class-action lawsuit Monday against e-cigarette company JUUL for allegedly spurring on a vaping epidemic among youth.

“But for Defendants’ actions, JUUL use by minors would not be as widespread as it is today, and the vaping public health epidemic that currently exists as a result of the Defendants’ conduct would have been averted,” the lawsuit reads.

The school district alleges that JUUL’s marketing strategy and product design targets teens and increases the likelihood that they will become addicted to the products. The district also claims JUUL poses a threat to the health strides made over the last decade with youth cigarette smoking.

RELATED: Arizona study finds toxic chemicals behind vaping lung illnesses

"They know what they're doing," said Christine Valdez, a La Conner School District counselor who specializes in drug prevention and interventions. "These kids are being manipulated. 

In Washington, the percentage of students who vape has increased as tobacco use declined. Between 2008 and 2018, the percentage of 12th graders who smoked cigarettes dropped from 20% to 8%, according to the 2018 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey. However, the percentage of 12th graders who vape increased from 20% to 30% from 2016 to 2018.

The lawsuit claims this switch is “far from coincidence.” It cites a 2014 Pax.com interview with JUUL co-founder James Monsees that says he saw “a huge opportunity for products that speak directly to those consumers who aren’t perfectly aligned with traditional tobacco products.”

Some of the marketing techniques that the lawsuit claims appeal to youth include a sleek design that could pass for a flash drive and offering flavors like crème brule.

La Conner School District, which is located in Skagit County about 65 miles north of Seattle, serves 600 students in preschool through 12th grade. The district says JUUL use has impacted curriculum development and class time, increased security staff time spent addressing discipline issues and JUUL use on school property, and increased counselor time talking with students impacted by the epidemic.

“Students are now beginning to tell counselors that they are concerned about their peers using JUUL and are afraid because the students do not know what they are putting in their bodies,” the lawsuit read.

"It's an increase in the workload for our counselors," said Superintendent Whitney Meissner. "It's an increase in the workload of our teachers because they have students using the device in class or are sneaking out of class, or missing class altogether. So, they have to catch those kids up on their learning."

The suit also cited incidents of middle school students asking upperclassmen to purchase JUUL products for them before Washington’s new tobacco age of 21 goes into effect in January.

The lawsuit was filed two days before the Washington State Board of Health voted to ban flavored vape products. Their decision came after Governor Jay Inslee issued an executive order last month requesting the ban. The ban will take effect Thursday, Oct. 10 and last 120 days. 

RELATED: Seattle vape shop owner worried about possible ban on flavored vapor products

More than 1,000 people nationwide have reported vaping-related lung illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seven of those cases are in Washington.