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Scott Maxwell: Addictive. Toxic. Florida schools look to lawsuits to curb vaping epidemic

Orlando Sentinel - 1/10/2020

Jan. 10--The vaping epidemic crashed over America like a nicotine-fueled tidal wave.

A few years ago, hardly any teenagers vaped. Then, suddenly, kids all over the country -- and all over school campuses -- were jamming electronic sticks into their mouths and taking deep inhalations of mango- and cherry-flavored mist.

Kids tasted flavors like Jolly Ranchers, but were also sucking up addictive toxins.

If you aren't around teens often, you may not realize how prevalent vaping has become.

It is everywhere. Some estimates suggest that nearly 40% of high-school seniors vaped last year.

And it all happened so quickly, as if we went from 0 to 60 in just five years.

"More like three years," responded Walt Griffin.

Griffin is the superintendent of Seminole County's school system. And his campuses are plagued with vaping devices.

Students are getting suspended and missing classes. Teachers spend time trying to catch and curb the addictive behavior. The district has even resorted to installing new vape-sensing technology -- devices that detect the nicotine-infused mist and then send alerts to school administrators, who can rush to the bathroom or corridor and try to stop what's going on.

Griffin is tired of it all.

So are his school board members. So they voted last month to join a growing list of districts around the nation in suing the company they say is largely responsible for starting the addiction craze.

I don't blame them one bit. Vape is the new tobacco -- with all the similarities of devious marketing and carcinogenic drugs peddled to kids by companies that care more about profits than health.

"They've made billions of dollars off the backs of our kids," Griffin said. "And it has been deliberately marketed to children."

The litigation -- in which Seminole joins Palm Beach County and more than a dozen other districts nationwide -- claims Juul Labs Inc. marketed toxins and carcinogens to teenagers, misrepresented the chemicals and promoted the products as a "healthy" alternative to smoking.

The Palm Beach lawsuit lists gobs of examples of marketing that it says directly targeted teens. It seeks unspecified damages, which Griffin says his district would use to create anti-vaping education programs.

The lawsuit stresses that the financial costs and damages to schools are real. Palm Beach said it was forced to create a "night class" for students suspended because of vaping and conduct "town hall" meetings to educate parents and students about the dangers of e-cigarettes.

Sure, a four-pack of Juul pods may cost only $15.99. But the costs to society and public health can be far more substantial.

The lawsuit is being filed as a "public nuisance" claim -- a legal theory successfully used to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for the opioid crisis they helped spawn.

Juul has denied targeting kids or misrepresenting its products. But it has since stopped offering fruity flavors, and in a June interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, the then-CEO of Juul said: "We are, of course, partly responsible (for youth vaping). We have 80 percent of the marketplace, how can we not be responsible for this? I don't think it's intent, but we are responsible and we've got to take action on it."

Why are these things so popular among teens? Well, the chemicals can trigger feelings of happiness and ease anxiety -- reactions obviously pleasing to adolescents.

But the chemicals are also highly addictive and can permanently alter still-developing brains.

With so much nicotine packed into a tiny pod, the lawsuit quotes a chemistry professor at Portland State University saying: "If you think Marlboros are bad because they're addictive, then this is like a Marlboro on steroids.'"

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed vaping a "public health epidemic."

Studies suggest 1 out of every 5 teens is vaping. And the older the kids get, the more likely they are to do it -- with the National Institutes of Health reporting 37% of high school seniors using last year.

Usage is even higher among boys. A teen psychologist once told me that virtually all her male patients had vaped.

Juul is the most popular vaping brand; so prevalent that "Juuling" is sometimes used as a synonym for vaping, the way "Googling" is for internet searches. But kids also use off-brand and street variations, which can include THC, marijuana and chemical cocktails even more dangerous and unregulated.

E-cigs are also nefariously easy to hide. Unlike cigarettes, with their pungent, smoky stench that often sticks to users and their clothes, e-cigs can be sneakily puffed most anywhere.

And again, there's the marketing. At a recent congressional hearing, members asked Juul why it spent $90,000 to sponsor an athletic league in Richmond that works with at-risk youth.

The company said it simply wanted to help the community and warn kids about the dangers of nicotine.

Sure. Just like if Budweiser said it wanted to spend money to tell kids how awful beer is. Maybe a jury will buy that.

Griffin said he has no doubt that this industry targeted kids with dangerous, profitable success.

"Much of what I've learned about vaping, I've learned from the students themselves," he said. "Kids are telling me this is starting in sixth or seventh grade. And it's doing permanent damage."

smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com

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