Dr. Richard Feldman: Schools should join Juul suit to recoup expenses

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Dr. Richard FeldmanJuul Labs, maker of the leading vaping device, Juul, is doing quite well. So well that the “Big Tobacco” company, Altria, bought a 35% interest ($12.8 billion) in Juul, which has 75% of the e-cigarette market.

The tobacco industry understands that vaping is the future of nicotine addiction. On the backdrop of huge reductions in youth cigarette use, vaping is skyrocketing among young people. Recent studies report regular vaping among high school students ranging from 21% to 43%.

Juul is largely responsible for creating this situation. Its device is attractive to youth—small, streamlined, looks like a USB drive, and is easy to hide, especially at school. Juul launched a massive youth-targeted social media campaign using the strategies developed by the tobacco industry, including attractive models, celebrities and other “influencers,” projecting the image of Juul as trendy and stylish. Juul presented social media “launch parties” and giveaways and made every effort to normalize vaping among young people.

The partnership between Juul, with its vaping scientific expertise, and Altria, with its tobacco-marketing playbook, has been hugely successful. Juul uses new extremely addictive nicotine salts and sweet flavorings and organic acids to decrease harshness. The company deliberately and methodically deployed a multifaceted plan to addict a generation of adolescents to nicotine.

According to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, Juul entered schools, camps and out-of-school events through surreptitious programming to promote Juul use. Juul is a bad actor and has also been under increasing scrutiny from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for marketing to minors.

Now school districts across the country, facing massive student e-cigarette use, are demanding accountability for Juul’s misdeeds by filing suit mostly under the Public Nuisance Law that has been successfully used against opioid pharmaceutical companies. The law holds that manufacturers can be held responsible for harms to society created by their products and marketing practices. Mass tort litigation has been established through a federal multiple-district litigation (MDL) established in a San Francisco federal court and through the Judicial Counsel on Coordinated Proceedings in state court in Los Angeles.

Over 857 school districts in 41 states have filed suit for past and future financial losses and other damages caused by Juul’s youth-marketing practices. Damages are for a myriad of measures necessary for schools to employ to combat vaping and to address problems caused by vaping. These include costs for installing vape detectors (tens of thousands of dollars), surveillance of bathrooms and stairways, test kits for determining contents of confiscated vape devices, vape educational assemblies and other prevention initiatives, student counseling, intervention for disruptive behavioral problems, tutoring for suspended students, addressing student health problems, and disruption of educational plans. Suits will also include punitive damages for wrongful conduct and injunctive relief for Juul-funded prevention and treatment programs for nicotine addiction.

Only about 73 of the over 300 Indiana school districts have joined the MDL. Why haven’t school districts like Perry, Pike, Lawrence and Warren townships (in Indianapolis), Fishers, Noblesville, Lafayette and West Lafayette, Terre Haute, Gary, Hobart, Hammond and Munster joined in? The submission process is simple and on a no-cost contingency basis. With budgetary challenges, this could be a much-needed infusion of funds for school districts.

Oh, by the way, the Indiana General Assembly just lowered the taxation on “closed” vaping devices like Juul. Perfect.•


Feldman is a family physician, author, lecturer and former Indiana State Department of Health commissioner for Gov. Frank O’Bannon. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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