Redwood City, CA—The San Mateo County Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools filed a lawsuit today in San Francisco’s federal district court against Juul Labs, Inc. The lawsuit seeks damages for Juul’s marketing strategy, advertising, and product design, which have targeted minors, especially preteens and teenagers, resulting in increased use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) by youth in San Mateo County. The Board and Superintendent also hope to change Juul’s marketing practices, which encourage youth to become addicted to their products.
The San Mateo County Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools are joined by the governing boards of Cabrillo Unified School District, Jefferson Union High School District, and San Mateo-Foster City School District, who also filed complaints with the court. The complaint comes on the tail of a resolution adopted by the County Board and Superintendent “Supporting and Commending the Efforts of the County, Municipalities, and School Districts to Reduce the Availability and Use of E-cigarettes by Youth in San Mateo County.”
The use of e-cigarettes by young people has become, in the words of the U.S. Surgeon General, a “public health epidemic” that is impacting the health, including brain development, of high numbers of youth, and potentially setting them up for a future of addiction to other drugs. According to Superintendent Nancy Magee, “Enough is enough. We hope this lawsuit will help put an end to tobacco companies’ profit-driven efforts to lure our children into a lifetime of poor health, addiction, and dashed dreams.”
While tobacco cigarette use has declined in recent years, data from the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey show that e-cigarette use among high school students more than doubled from 2017 to 2019, to 27.5 percent of students, or more than one in four high schoolers. More than ten percent of middle school students also reported using e-cigarettes. In all, five million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2019—an increase of nearly three million users in two years. Closer to home, the California Student Tobacco Survey found that 20.8 percent of teens in San Mateo County used e-cigarettes in 2018, up from 11.8 percent in 2017, and much higher than the state average of 10.9 percent.
Nicotine exposure during adolescence impacts learning, memory, and attention. And, as alarmingly high numbers of students are drawn to Juul e-cigarettes, schools are struggling to ban use on campus and keep students focused on learning.
As a result of the vaping epidemic, school districts across San Mateo County have altered almost overnight the ways in which they handle campus supervision, the allocation of resources, and student supports. Since e-cigarette use on campus is so prevalent, traditional discipline processes have been replaced with new approaches to support students, many of whom already show the signs of addiction. These include hiring more therapists and campus supervisors, developing staff- and time-intensive programs offered as an alternative to multi-day suspensions, as well as installing vape detectors in restrooms and providing additional training for staff. These additional costs impact schools’ already-strained budgets.
The San Mateo County Office of Education (SMCOE) has significantly expanded its services to support school districts in responding to the youth e-cigarette epidemic. This year alone, SMCOE has held a county-wide summit addressing vaping and students; provided schools with Stanford’s Tobacco Toolkit, Brief Intervention, and other training; organized a Vaping Prevention Collaborative; and engaged in discussions of vaping at other conferences, including the Youth Advocacy and Social Summit held in November at SMCOE. Additional conferences and training are planned for 2020. SMCOE staff members are often called on by school districts to help address vaping in their schools and to apply for Tobacco Use Prevention Education and other grants to address the epidemic.
Superintendent Magee is hopeful the lawsuit will make a difference, as the need for change is urgent. “The San Mateo County Office of Education and our school district partners are scrambling to respond to the expanding use of e-cigarettes by our students. Although we are allocating more staff time and resources to address the vaping epidemic and support our students, we cannot do this work alone or compete with the resources of tobacco companies.”
Jefferson Union High School District Superintendent Dr. Terry Deloria shared this view and highlighted work underway, “A recent study by the Pacifica Prevention Partnership showed that seventy percent of students who vape want to quit, but are not physically able to do so. Our district is developing a program with STAR Vista and the Pacifica Prevention Partnership to provide teens with the support and resources they need to overcome this addiction.”
The lawsuits have been filed by the Renne Public Law Group (RPLG), a public interest law firm co-founded by Louise Renne. RPLG joins a coalition of other law firms that includes Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP; Migliaccio & Rathod, LLP; Wagstaff & Cartmell, LLP; and the San Mateo County Counsel’s Office to challenge Juul and big tobacco.
The San Mateo County Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools’ complaint can be found here.
The San Mateo County Office of Education is committed to ensuring excellence and equity in education by inspiring students, investing in teachers, invigorating leaders, and involving communities.