While various government agencies work to counter the use of e-cigarette use among teenagers, officials from the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District have decided to take the fight directly to its source, filing a lawsuit against San Francisco-based vaping giant JUUL Labs.
Filed by the school district in federal court on Dec. 16, the 82-page lawsuit claims that the e-cigarette manufacturer uses unethical marketing tactics that target underage users, promoting use some say has reached epidemic proportions.
In addition to the LVJUSD, the San Francisco Unified School District, Cabrillo Unified School District, San Mateo-Foster City School District and Jefferson Union High School District had filed litigation as of Dec. 16.
"We still do not know the extent of vaping's health consequences for our kids, but we know the results are serious," LVJUSD Superintendent Kelly Bowers said. "Educators see the impact of Juul's teen-focused marketing efforts firsthand every day. Our schools must hold Juul accountable for misleading the children we serve."
In the lawsuit the school district alleges JUUL's "marketing strategy, advertising, and product design targets minors, especially preteens and teenagers, and has and will continue to increase the likelihood that minors, like the students in the district, will begin using e-cigarettes and become addicted to tobacco products and this will cause further harm."
Taking particular issue with the design of JUUL's vaping products, the lawsuit alleges that e-cigarettes' design designs are portrayed as "must have tech products" that can be easily hidden or mistaken for a USB drive, in combination with "a more powerful and addictive" nicotine delivery system that hooks users.
Those sleek designs, in combination with marketing strategies such as pushing candy flavored vape pods and using paid social media advertising that is tailored toward a young audience, influences teenagers to become addicted to nicotine at a young age, argue district officials.
In addition to seeking damages for marketing efforts that are designed to specifically appeal to youth under the age of 18, district officials say they also hope to change JUUL's marketing practices.
In a written statement after the lawsuit filing, JUUL representatives say they remain focused on earning the public's trust and working with "attorneys general, regulators, public health officials and other stakeholders" to combat the use of vaping among underage users. They further added that they remain committed to converting adult smokers from combustible cigarettes to electronic ones.
"As part of that process, we recently stopped accepting orders for our Mint JUULpods in the U.S., suspended all broadcast, print and digital product advertising in the U.S., are investing in scientific research to ensure the quality of our FDA Premarket Tobacco Product Application application and expanding our commitment to develop new technology to reduce youth use," JUUL representatives said in a statement.
"Our customer base is the world's 1 billion adult smokers and we do not intend to attract underage users. To the extent these cases allege otherwise, they are without merit," they added.
District officials say the lawsuits have been filed by the Renne Public Law Group, a boutique public interest law firm co-founded by Louise Renne.
"Big tobacco tried to hook our kids on cigarettes years ago, and now they're at it again. Juul's focused efforts to create a generation of vaping addicts with marketing that targets children is unacceptable," Renne said in a statement. "I'm proud to support the educators that sit on the front lines of this health crisis created by Juul. We are united in our commitment to the health of our children."