Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District is suing the nation’s largest e-cigarette maker, Juul Labs, Inc., alleging the San Francisco-based company’s marketing strategy deceptively targeted its minor students, in violation of federal racketeering laws.
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Monday, attorneys for the school district describe Juul’s use of social media, paid influencers, and viral hashtag advertising as a highly-coordinated youth-oriented marketing campaign to persuade young people into believing that Juuling was the latest cool trend — and healthy.
It further states Juul intentionally facilitated underage use in schools by designing easily concealed e-cigarettes. Schools have incurred substantial expenses combating the use of its products by students. According to the lawsuit, these include the costs incurred through increased security and monitoring protocols, student suspensions and other disciplinary programs, and the addition of educational programs warning of the health effects of vaping.
The lawsuit seeks recovery for damages on several theories, including violation of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations “RICO” statute, gross negligence, public nuisance, strict product liability, and unjust enrichment, for which the lawsuit claims the district is entitled to disgorgement of Juul’s ill-gotten profits.
“We still do not know the extent of vaping’s health consequences for our kids, but we know the results are serious,” Livermore School District Superintendent Kelly Bowers said. “Educators see the impact of Juul’s teen-focused marketing efforts firsthand every day. Our schools must hold Juul accountable for misleading the children we serve.”
The lawsuit calls out Juul’s patented manufacturing method that increases the potency of nicotine with the use of benzoic acid to produce nicotine salts. The lawsuit claims that this process makes Juul’s products highly-addictive. Juul controls nearly three-quarters of the e-cigarette market, according to the lawsuit.
For years, Bowers said that tobacco use in schools had dwindled almost out of existence. That changed when the vaping trend became widespread among young people. She credits concerned high school students in the district with first opening her eyes to the prevalence of vaping on social media platforms. As a result, more students who otherwise made wise choices were lured into vaping and becoming addicted to nicotine, she said.
Twenty-five percent of Livermore School District high schoolers report that they currently use some form of tobacco, according to a survey taken during the 2017-2018 school year. E-cigarettes often contain nicotine and are considered tobacco products.
Livermore is not unique. A recent University of Michigan study revealed: increases in adolescent vaping from 2017 to 2018 were the largest ever recorded in 43 years for any adolescent substance use in the United States. The study noted the percentage of 12th graders who reported vaping nicotine in the past 30 days nearly doubled rising to 21% in 2018, from 11 percent% in 2017.
While Livermore is the only school district named in the lawsuit, several other Bay Area school districts filed their own lawsuits in federal court this week including: San Francisco Unified School District, Cabrillo Unified School District, San Mateo-Foster City School District and Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County.
All of the lawsuits are being filed by the Renne Public Law Group, a public interest law firm in San Francisco, in collaboration with other law firms. The firms are handling the cases on a contingency basis, which means the school districts will only pay for the legal representation from any damages awarded if they prevail.
Juul has recently adopted voluntary measures to reduce the access of its products to young people. It also has stopped selling sweet flavored pods that became popular among high school users, including mango, fruit medley, cucumber, creme brulee and mint.
"Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers and we do not intend to attract underage users. To the extent these cases allege otherwise, they are without merit," a Juul Labs spokesperson said in a written statement in response to the lawsuit.
In July, the Livermore City Council unanimously adopted Ordinance 2088, which requires every retailer selling tobacco products in the city to obtain a city tobacco license; every retailer to be more than 1,000 feet from schools and locations where youth gather; and prohibits the sale of all flavored tobacco products, e-cigarettes and e-cigarette liquids.
The law was supposed to go into effect this past August, but a challenge by Juul, which was later abandoned, delayed its implementation. It is now set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020.