The Olathe School District on Friday voted to authorize a lawsuit against the nation’s leading maker of electronic cigarettes, saying the widespread use by students of vaping devices is endangering their health and disrupting their education.
In a news release issued after it approved the suit, the district said that it “understands the threat to student health and is taking action against the epidemic.”
“The top priority of the Olathe Public Schools is the safety and well-being of its students and staff,” the release states. “Electronic cigarettes and vaping devices pose a significant threat to student health with misleading advertisements targeted toward middle and high school students. It is the district’s responsibility to protect its students.”
The suit, which will name Juul Labs as a defendant, had not been filed as of early Friday afternoon.
A spokesman for Juul, asked to comment on the district’s plan to sue it, said the company was “committed to eliminating combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in the world.”
“Our product has always only been intended to be a viable alternative for the one billion current adult smokers in the world,” the spokesman, Ted Kwong, said via email. “We have never marketed to youth and do not want any non-nicotine users to try our products. We have launched an aggressive action plan to combat underage use as it is antithetical to our mission.”
Juul is the dominant e-cigarette manufacturer and distributor in the United States, controlling at least two-thirds of the market. Cigarette giant Altria acquired a 35 percent stake in Juul last year in a deal valued at $12.8 billion.
In its resolution authorizing the lawsuit, the school district cites recent deaths tied to e-cigarettes, including two in Kansas, and says the number of students using vaping devices has risen sharply since 2017.
The district has experienced “serious difficulties” with students using Juul’s devices, disrupting the district’s educational mission and forcing it to divert resources to curb and prevent e-cigarette usage, the resolution states.
More than 800 cases of lung injury linked to e-cigarette use have been reported in 46 states and one U.S. territory, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twelve deaths have been confirmed in 10 states, including the two in Kansas and one in Missouri.
The Olathe school board had signaled its intention to sue Juul on Thursday, when it issued written statements to media outlets alerting them to the forthcoming resolution. The Olathe School District comprises schools in Olathe, Overland Park and Lenexa with more than 30,000 students.
Juul increasingly has found itself the target of lawsuits filed by individuals claiming it fraudulently concealed its products’ addictive nature, misrepresented their safety and aimed at teens in its marketing campaigns.
At least three such lawsuits have been filed recently by Kansas City area residents and more are expected to be filed soon.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, Johnson County resident Isaac Gant claimed that he began vaping as a senior in high school four years ago and is now addicted to nicotine, suffers from respiratory problems, coughing fits and bouts of anxiety, and needs to take frequent breaks at work to satisfy his nicotine cravings.
Gant’s lawsuit accused Juul of adopting the marketing strategies of tobacco companies by glamorizing vaping while downplaying its addictiveness and adverse health effects.
Olathe is at least the second Kansas school district to authorize a lawsuit against e-cigarette manufacturers. Earlier this month, Goddard Public Schools said it planned to sue e-cigarette makers and distributors over the widespread use of e-cigarettes among its students.
Read the Olathe School District's resolution authorizing the lawsuit:
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.