‘Vaping has caused a serious disruption in our buildings’: Olathe schools suing Juul

Struggling to keep vaping out of schools, the Olathe school district is suing Juul — the nation’s largest e-cigarette manufacturer, now under fire as the number of deaths related to vaping continues to climb.

The school board on Friday voted unanimously to authorize the lawsuit, making Olathe one of the first districts in Kansas to do so. Earlier this month, Goddard school officials announced they planned to file a similar lawsuit.

“Our role as a public school district is to provide our students with the best educational environment to help them learn and grow. To protect our students is paramount,” Olathe Superintendent John Allison said in a statement. “Middle and high school students, we believe, have been targeted by e-cigarette and vaping manufacturers with false and misleading advertising. Vaping has caused a serious disruption in our buildings.”

Young vape users and parents also have been filing lawsuits targeting Juul, including a man in Johnson County. The lawsuit alleges the company’s marketing has led to widespread substance abuse among young people.

Hundreds of Americans have been reported to have a vaping-related breathing illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this week 805 cases have been reported, and the death toll has risen to 12.

On Monday, Kansas reported its second vaping death in less than two weeks. Missouri has reported one death related to the outbreak.

“Vaping is an epidemic and, as community leaders, we’re taking the lead to protect our students and future leaders,” said Olathe school board president Shannon Wickliffe. “The hidden dangers of vaping are triggering a health crisis and we’re taking action.”

Olathe, like most districts, has been trying to combat students vaping in school with tougher penalties and more education, including an MD Anderson Cancer Center online program called ASPIRE. Juul, with its fruit and candy flavors, has been a prime target.

“They are like the Nike of e-cigarettes,” Tim Brady, Olathe Schools’ liaison for Safe/Drug Free Schools, told The Star earlier this year. “They created a product marketed to teens that’s appealing in terms of how they advertise it.”

Health officials have said individuals reported to have the illness have used a range of vaping products: some containing nicotine and others containing THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a high. No single product or ingredient has been linked to the vaping illness.

No major e-cigarette company has been tied to the ailments, but Juul and others have been under widespread criticism because the number of teenagers vaping has skyrocketed in recent years, even though no one under 18 is legally allowed to buy them. Federal and state officials are pushing restrictions on underage vaping. The Trump administration has proposed a sweeping ban on e-cigarette flavors that might encourage teenagers to pick up the habit.

Health officials have said vaping could be a less-deadly alternative for adults trying to quit smoking cigarettes, but they worry about teenagers vaping because nicotine is harmful to developing brains.

Juul, which controls around 70% of the market, announced this week it will no longer run TV, print or digital e-cigarette advertisements. The company also said it is replacing its CEO.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.