JoCo’s largest school districts spend so much combating vaping, they’re all suing Juul

Failing to stop nicotine-addicted students from vaping in restrooms, hallways and even classrooms, the three major school districts in Johnson County are now suing the nation’s largest e-cigarette manufacturer.

The lawsuits come as illnesses and deaths related to vaping continue to climb.

The Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school boards voted Monday to sue Juul, which has been under fire for its marketing that many argue has targeted children and teens. The De Soto school board also plans to sue the company. And, the Olathe school board agreed to sue Juul last month.

“Teachers and administration are spending significant amounts of time monitoring and policing vaping in school,” Blue Valley school board President Cindy Bowling said. “It is a drain of resources and a major distraction for students, teachers and administrators.”

School systems in St. Charles, Missouri, outside St. Louis, and Goddard, Kansas, near Wichita, have filed similar lawsuits as more students struggle with addiction. School officials said vaping has occupied school nurses, social workers, counselors and school resource officers.

By suing, the districts are seeking unspecified compensation for the costs of trying to keep vaping out of schools.

“Without nicotine, our kids while they’re at school are feeling cravings. They’re jittery, anxious and irritable,” said Shelby Rebeck, director of health services for the Shawnee Mission district. “Our kids are telling us they literally cannot make it through the school day without vaping due to this addiction.”

Juul, which offers fruit and candy flavors, has been widely criticized as teen vaping has skyrocketed, even though no one under 18 can legally buy e-cigarettes. Juul officials have said they never marketed to children, and last month agreed to stop running TV, print and digital advertisements. Now the Food and Drug Administration wants flavored vaping products removed from the market.

As of Oct. 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported 1,080 reports of lung injuries associated with e-cigarette use from 48 states. Eighteen deaths have been linked to vaping, including two in Kansas and one in Missouri. And the death toll continues to grow.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday ordered the state departments of health, education and public safety to craft a campaign detailing the dangers of youth vaping. Other states, including New York and Massachusetts, have declared vaping a public health emergency. Some have banned flavored vaping products.

E-cigarettes were first touted by health officials as a way for adults to quit cigarettes. But now experts worry about teenagers vaping because nicotine is harmful to developing brains. The CDC estimates the number of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes jumped from 2.1 million in 2017 to 3.6 million last year.

No single company or product has been tied to vaping-related illnesses. Health experts don’t know the cause of the lung injuries.

Before turning to litigation, school districts across Johnson County attempted to combat vaping with tougher penalties and more education, including an MD Anderson Cancer Center online program called ASPIRE.

In April, the Blue Valley district adopted stricter disciplinary measures for students possessing, using or distributing vape products. The consequences are now equal to that of drug possession, officials said in a news release Tuesday.

“In my 35 years in education, I’ve never seen anything that has been so rapid and devastating to the health and well-being of students, nor so disruptive to the daily work of teachers and administrators in educating our students, as vaping,” said Todd White, Blue Valley superintendent, in the release.

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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.