RALEIGH — Wake County schools will file a lawsuit against the e-cigarette giant Juul, joining a nationwide fight to curb vaping addiction in students.
North Carolina has already won a $40 million settlement against Juul, the first state to challenge and force change in how Juul targets teens with its marketing.
But hundreds of other lawsuits remain, and Wake adds weight to the anti-youth-vaping effort as the first school district in North Carolina to take legal action.
“This is an action we can take that will make a strong difference,” said board member Chris Heagarty, “and strike a blow at something bigger than us.”
The board’s move comes as vaping has surged among teens in North Carolina and across the nation.
The rate of e-cigarette use among high school students rose to 20.9% in 2019, eight years after the product was first introduced, according to the NC Youth Tobacco Survey.
Among middle schoolers, the rate topped 6%.
In Wake County, the school system saw e-cigarette violations rise by more than 1000% between the 2016-17 and 2018-19 school year, the N&O previously reported.
“It is in middle schools,” said board member Karen Carter on Tuesday. “It is in high schools. It is in classrooms. It is in cars on the way to school. It’s so accessible and so easy to get.”
Of those high school users surveyed, 25% said they want to smoke within an hour of waking up and 30% reported having trouble getting through the day without smoking.
Board Chairman Keith Sutton stressed that joining the string of lawsuits comes at no cost to Wake schools. The board agreed to retain several attorneys involved in Juul suits. Those attorneys are paid on a contingency basis — only if the suit is successful.
“The risk is completely on us,” said Janet Ward Black, personal injury lawyer in Greensboro.
Before Tuesday’s vote, law firms involved in Juul litigation noted Wake could seek past and future damages for monitoring e-cigarette use, prevention, addiction treatment and discipline.
In the state’s lawsuit, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein argued Juul, which has 75% of the e-cigarette market, unlawfully targeted youth through advertising and social media and failed to confirm online customers were over 18.
North Carolina’s settlement
As part of the settlement with North Carolina, Juul will cease its marketing on social media and near schools and will stop arguing that vaping is safer than cigarettes. Juul products are now required to be sold behind store counters.
Board members wondered if Raleigh and Wake County governments could restrict vaping stores in neighborhoods around schools, and they noted the lawsuits against Juul could have the same effect the “Joe Camel” suit had on teen smoking in the 1990s.