Olathe school district poised to sue Juul amid vaping illness outbreak

The Olathe school district is poised to sue a major electronic cigarette manufacturer as the number of deaths from a vaping-related lung disease continues to climb.

The school board will hold a special meeting at 11:30 a.m. Friday to vote on filing a lawsuit against Juul, the largest U.S. seller of e-cigarettes. Vape users and parents have filed dozens of lawsuits targeting Juul, including a man in Johnson County, who alleged the company’s marketing has led to widespread substance abuse among young people.

District officials declined to comment until after Friday’s meeting.

Hundreds of Americans have been reported to have a vaping-related breathing illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 805 cases have been reported, and the death toll has risen to 12.

On Monday, Kansas reported its second vaping death in less than two weeks. Missouri has reported one death related to the outbreak.

State officials have said afflicted individuals have used a range of vaping products: some containing nicotine and others containing THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a high. No single product or ingredient has been linked to the vaping illness.

No major e-cigarette company has been tied to the ailments, but Juul and others have been under fire because the number of teenagers vaping has skyrocketed in recent years, even though no one under 18 is legally allowed to buy them. Federal and state officials are pushing restrictions on underage vaping. The Trump administration has proposed a sweeping ban on e-cigarette flavors that might encourage teenagers to pick up the habit.

Health officials have said vaping could be a less-deadly alternative for adults trying to quit smoking cigarettes, but they worry about teenagers vaping because nicotine is harmful to developing brains.

Juul, which controls around 70% of the market, announced this week it will no longer run TV, print or digital e-cigarette advertisements. The company also said it is replacing its CEO.

Olathe, like most districts, has been trying to combat students vaping in school with tougher penalties and more education, including an MD Anderson Cancer Center online program called ASPIRE. Juul, with its fruit and candy flavors, has been a prime target.

“They are like the Nike of e-cigarettes,” Tim Brady, Olathe Schools’ liaison for Safe/Drug Free Schools, told The Star earlier this year. “They created a product marketed to teens that’s appealing in terms of how they advertise it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.