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TUSD joins school districts nationwide in litigation against vape company Juul
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TUSD joins school districts nationwide in litigation against vape company Juul

A number of local school districts, including TUSD, have joined a Pima County task force to develop strategies to increase student awareness on the risks of vaping.

TUSD has joined school districts nationwide in litigation against vaping company Juul Labs, Inc., seeking financial compensation to deal with rising teen tobacco use.

“Vaping is problem No. 1 in all of our high schools, not unlike any high school around the nation,” Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said during an Oct. 16 board meeting. “It’s a pretty serious disruption that we deal with.”

In the last few years, the district has seen a spike in vape-related suspensions, Trujillo said, adding that it’s the “hands-down winner” in drug-, tobacco- and alcohol-related offenses in TUSD schools.

The governing board unanimously voted to join the litigation Oct. 16 and the case was filed in federal court on Tuesday, Oct. 22.

The spike in vape-related incidents is putting stress on schools. TUSD is using resources to deal with the many repercussions of vape-related suspensions, ditching or tardiness, Trujillo says.

Students in TUSD caught vaping or with paraphernalia are given an automatic two-day suspension. Students are also sent to a social worker and a drug- and alcohol-prevention and awareness program.

While TUSD has not done a financial analysis of the cost of student vaping, office staff and teachers spend time dealing with absences, looking for students who are late due to vaping, getting kids caught up in the aftermath of suspensions and meeting with parents.

If a student is absent 10 days or more, it could affect school funding. There’s also an impact on parents who may have to take time off work to meet with office staff or a social worker.

Four or five Arizona school districts have joined or committed to the litigation, said attorney José de Jesús Rivera, who is assisting with the cases originating out of Arizona.

Teen vaping is a problem in all nine of the Pima County’s major school districts, although no other local district has joined the litigation.

Both Vail and Sahuarita school districts are supporting student groups combating the issue.

Teens in the Student Wellness Advocacy Team from Vail’s Empire High School spoke with the Tucson City Council, asking it to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 within city limits, which the council did on Tuesday.

The Sahuarita district is convening a peer leadership initiative that will address vaping, says spokeswoman Amber Woods. Sahuarita is also using school resources to coordinate professional training, educational resources for students, communication and outreach.

The Marana Unified School District has prevention and outreach services to combat the problem, with counselors, social workers and health and wellness programs, said district spokeswoman Tamara Crawley.

“All staff provide education to students about the risks of e-cigarettes and are on high alert for e-cigarette use on campus,” she said in an email. “Additionally, schools share information and resources with parents about this issue.”

She said given the district’s multifaceted approach to combat the issue, as well as the impact on students, including missing school days, Marana Unified can’t currently quantify the financial cost vaping is having on the district.

None of the local districts have been able to quantify the cost of vaping, but they all say a big part of the solution is raising awareness of the health risks.

Jonathan Kieffer, one of the lawyers representing TUSD, other school districts and individuals across the country in litigation against Juul, says the company has teen-centric marketing, which has created a huge burden on public schools at a time when teen tobacco use had been drastically reduced.

Use of tobacco products among high school seniors had declined from nearly 30% in 1976 to less than 4% in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Much of that was accomplished by mass advertising funded by a multibillion-dollar settlement against Big Tobacco in the 1990s, Kieffer says.

Juul launched its current design of vape pens in 2015, which took the company from millions in revenue to this year’s forecasted revenue of $3 billion, according to court documents. The company wanted to create the iPhone of vapes, and they now command 80% of the market and a huge percent of the teen market, Kieffer says.

“Juul has undone what it took 40 years to accomplish,” he said.

Juul Labs spokesperson Ted Kwong says the company did not design their marketing to appeal to youth or non-nicotine users.

“They exist to help adult smokers find an alternative to combustible cigarettes,” he said in a statement. “We need to urgently address underage use of vapor products and earn the trust of regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders. That is why we are focusing on taking aggressive actions to reduce youth usage of our products.”

High school students’ use of tobacco products grew by more than 38% in 2018, with the vast majority of products being e-cigarettes, according to a February report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Pima County, 48% of teens have tried a vape or e-cigarette device, according to the 2018 Arizona Youth Survey.

A number of local school districts, including TUSD, have joined a Pima County task force to develop strategies to increase student awareness of the risks of vaping. The task force launched “The REAL DEAL on Vaping” campaign in March 2019 with the aim of educating teens, parents and guardians, health care professionals and teachers about the health risks of vaping.

Going forward, TUSD will look at new ways to combat the issue, such as including an anti-vaping program in the curriculum, Trujillo says, adding that joining the litigation against Juul was the first step in combating a relatively new problem.

Attorneys in the litigation against Juul only get paid if there is a settlement, in which case they would get 25%, subject to approval of a federal judge.

The multiple cases against Juul are all being consolidated into one federal court in San Francisco. If there is a settlement, there will likely be a sophisticated allocation model that would take into account district size, demographics, geography and need, Kieffer says. It’s too soon to estimate what that settlement could be.

Addressing the issue will take education on the front end to deter use; resources to monitor and police; and additional support for kids already using or addicted, Kieffer told the TUSD governing board.

“This company has created an epidemic of gigantic proportions,” he said about Juul. “And it’s going to take a gigantic solution to try to address it.”

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara

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Danyelle joined the Star in 2018 and covers K-12 education. Previously, Danyelle wrote for the Tucson Weekly where she won several statewide awards including story of the year and first place investigative reporting.

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