Cecil school system joins lawsuit against JUUL

In this Dec. 20, 2018, file photo a woman buys refills for her JUUL at a smoke shop in New York. Cecil County Public Schools has joined a class action lawsuit against JUUL Labs Inc.

ELKTON — Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) joined school districts across the country in a class action lawsuit against JUUL Labs, Inc., which manufactures e-cigarettes and other vaping products, at a board meeting Wednesday, Dec. 9.

Ava Stephens, a Rising Sun High School sophomore and leader of student-led advocacy group Drug Free Cecil, cited national statistics indicating that just 5 percent of high school students used e-cigarette products in 2013, but that number had jumped to 27.5 percent in 2019.

“It’s becoming normal to see kids vaping in bathrooms, and that is something that’s scary for me,” she said. “I know that’s something that’s scary for a lot of youth right now.”

According to her fellow Drug Free Cecil member Javier Villa-Gomez Magana, a sophomore at Elkton High School, tobacco use in Cecil County increased from 19.3 percent in 2016 to 42.7 percent in 2019. Given that cigarette use has decreased, he linked the jump in tobacco use directly to increased prevalence of vaping.

The class action lawsuit is being litigated by Frantz Law Group on behalf of over 100 school districts across the country, including CCPS. The board of neighboring Harford County Public Schools voted Monday to join the same lawsuit, which is being pursued in the Northern Division of the United States District Court of California. JUUL Labs, Inc. is based out of San Francisco.

William Shinoff, a trial lawyer at Frantz Law Group, addressed the CCPS board on Dec. 9 to explain that e-cigarette use has become a disruption to learning not just in high schools, but at the middle school and even elementary school level.

“This company took the exact same playbook of big tobacco,” Shinoff said. “The concept was, if you addict someone at a young age to your product, you create a customer for life.”

CCPS policy states that the sale and use of tobacco in any form, and the use of electronic nicotine/non-nicotine delivery systems, is prohibited by anyone in Cecil County Public School buildings, “24 hours a day, every day.”

However, unlike cigarettes, the vapor released is nearly odorless, meaning the product can be used easily in bathrooms, hallways or even in the classroom. Each JUUL pod contains about 10 times the level of nicotine as cigarettes, and as such are highly addictive.

While the products were originally billed as a substitute for cigarettes, the lawsuit alleges that the company targeted younger consumers with popular flavored pods and dedicated marketing.

According to Shinoff, the lawsuit could potentially yield funding for CCPS to invest in measures deterring use of e-cigarettes on campus, including vapor detectors in bathrooms, increased staff for supervision and counseling support and educational programs to show students the short- and long-term adverse effects.

In addition to the prospective funding, Shinoff also characterized the lawsuit as an investment in student health.

“Getting information to students is very important, because right now, there is a very large gap between what children know about the product, what parents know about the product and what the truth is,” he said. “You’re taking one more step further to protect the children in your community, to make sure that this type of conduct stops.”

He said there would be no deposition and minimal document production required of CCPS. He estimated it would require a few hours of staff time responding to a questionnaire.

As for cost, there is no direct cost to the district. Frantz Law Group typically charges a contingency of 40 percent of the monetary recovery, but has cut the fee to 20 percent if there’s a recovery in the first year and 25 percent if recovery comes any time after.

Beth Creek, the executive director of Youth Empowerment Source and organizer of Drug Free Cecil, said that there is energy on the local level to address e-cigarette use in schools. She said that Drug Free Cecil grew from two to over 340 high school students in just two years.

“That’s a lot of students who are really interested in digging into prevention and issues like the ones surrounding vaping,” Creek said.

Christie Stephens, a board member representing Rising Sun, made a motion to join the class action lawsuit and approve the contingency fee agreement stating that CCPS is not responsible for any litigation fees or costs to Frantz Law Group. The motion passed unanimously.

Stephens thanked the CCPS students who presented, including her daughter Ava, for their dedication to create a safe learning environment for their fellow students.

“As adults, as moms and dads, we can do all of the talking and fact-giving that we want, but when it comes from [students’] peers, it carries a lot more weight,” she said. “The work that you all are doing in our schools, both advocating for healthy living and recruiting other students is going to bring huge dividends in the years to come in our county.”

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