Goddard public schools to sue e-cigarette, vaping industry

Goddard school officials say they are preparing to sue the makers, distributors and sellers of electronic cigarettes and vaping products as underage teens across the country have picked up the habit at alarming rates.

“It has become apparent to us over the last couple of years that we have a crisis of vaping,” school board President Kevin McWhorter said Tuesday during a press conference. He and Superintendent Justin Henry discussed a resolution unanimously passed Monday by the board that allows Wagstaff and Cartmell of Kansas City to sue on the district’s behalf.

“We have found that it (vaping) is disruptive to our education process on a daily basis. And we believe that it is our responsibility as a school district to protect the kids from what we feel is a ... growing crisis,” McWhorter said, referring to studies that show a 900% jump in e-cigarette use among American youth from 2011 to 2015 and more than 3.6 million middle- and high schoolers partaking in the trend in 2018.

Vaping, he said, is being marketed as a safe alternative to smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes, “when in fact it is not.”

“We believe that if there is going to be progress made for the safety of our kids we need to be out front in this effort.”

Henry said the district does not intend to seek class action status. He said Wagstaff and Cartmell approached the district about filing the suit and characterized their discussions as recent. His brother, Brandon Henry, is a lawyer at the firm, but Henry said the district had been working with two other attorneys on the case.

The suit is expected to be filed within a few weeks.

McWhorter said the hope is that other schools and jurisdictions will file similar litigation targeting the e-cigarette and vaping industry. Goddard’s suit is thought to be among the first filed by a school district.

The school board’s resolution says the litigation will seek to “compensate the district for damages suffered by the district and its students as a results of the manufacture, marketing, sale and use of electronic-cigarettes and vaping products, and to seek any other appropriate relief.” It does not specify a dollar amount.

“We find that because of the way that this has been marketed, kids and parents just don’t have a clue as to the dangers that they’re taking whenever they are vaping,” McWhorter said.

“It’s a big issue. It’s them (kids) doing it, how it’s impacting their brain now and in the future, how much time and resources our teachers and administrators and law enforcement have to put toward this,” Henry said, noting a study that found 1 in 5 high schoolers and 1 in 20 middle schoolers used e-cigarettes last year.

“Normally if one student’s vaping ... they’ve shared it with somebody else and multiple kids have had it.”

Announcement of the lawsuit comes as the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Tuesday said the state had recorded its first death linked to a nationwide outbreak of vaping-related lung disease. So far, six cases have been reported in Kansas — including the death of a Kansas resident over the age of 50 who had been vaping for only two weeks before becoming ill.

Dane Baxa, director of community relations for Goddard schools, said the decision to sue isn’t in response to the illnesses and deaths but rather a reaction to seeing more students using e-cigarette and vaping products.

It’s unclear whether any Goddard students have fallen ill with the vaping-related lung disease.

But Henry said vaping among Goddard students has become more commonplace — including at school where it’s been banned — and disrupts school and the learning process.

He cited a case where one student caught vaping in a classroom during the first week of school last year didn’t realize it was a problem.

“They don’t see it as a cigarette and the marketing behind this has been targeted and researched to ... allow kids to believe it’s different. And it’s not. It’s worse,” he said.

Much of the marketing that will be under fire in the lawsuit comes from leading vaping product producer Juul, which the Food and Drug Administration on Monday accused of illegally pitching its products as safer alternatives to smoking. Advocates, parents and others have accused the company of fueling a vaping craze among underage teens through its marketing campaigns, which Juul has denied targeted children.

McWhorter said he expects the Juul company to be the one “often heard by name” in the Goddard lawsuit because of its footprint in the vaping and e-cigarette industry and its marketing tactics. It is the only company named in the board of education’s resolution.

But the suit will also go after other manufacturers, distributors and sellers, he said.

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