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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Juul called a serious distraction in San Francisco schools

Students vaped in class. They vaped in bathrooms during class. They filled said bathrooms during breaks and lunch with bouts of what one witness — a former student — called the "nic shits."

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — At the end of the first week of trial in San Francisco Unified School District's lawsuit against vape giant Juul, jurors heard testimony that use of vape pens by students had declined before more than doubling from 2017 to 2019.

Only a little more than 7% of students throughout the district had reported using vape pens in 2017, former district health administrator Erica Lingell testified Friday. By 2019, she said, that figure had more than doubled to 16%. In a district teaching just over 50,000 kids, that means 8,000 high school and middle school students were using electronic cigarettes.

Lingell said students were using Juul — then a new vaping device that had become the must-have item for a lot of kids — and the district was scrambling to build support systems and give guidance to teachers and staff about them.

“We didn’t have anything for this new substance that the kids were using,” Lingell said in answer to questioning by the school district's attorney Dena Sharp. “We didn’t have lessons. We didn’t have enough research except for what experts were telling us.”

Use of Juul vaping devices — and to a much lesser extent, other brands of e-cigarettes — had become epidemic and the school district was building systems to combat Juul from scratch. Even after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned the sale of e-cigarettes in the city — the corporate home of Juul — in 2019, use continued. For school district officials, it was a scramble to pull together the resources needed to combat Juul’s growth among students.

“It was like flying the plane while we were building it,” said Lingrell.

For other substance use issues in the district, there were materials lesson plans, and support groups in place to help teachers tackle the problem. In fact, there were already 25 lesson plans in place for the district’s health curriculum dealing with these issues, which already took a lot of students’ overall class time. Dealing with Juul took additional time the teachers didn’t have, Lingrell said.

Students leaving class to smoke would interfere with teaching time for the rest of the kids, she said. “Teachers have an incredibly hard and busy schedule already. One kid being gone affects everybody.”

Much of the school district’s argument in its case against Juul and tobacco powerhouse Altria involves the distraction which occurred when vaping became endemic, interfering not only with teachers’ abilities to control their classrooms but nearly all levels of student life.

Part of Juul’s appeal among students was that Juul vape pens were discreet. They didn’t look like other vape pens which had come to market and could be easily hidden. In fact, according to Madeline Cho, a former student at George Washington High School in San Francisco’s Richmond District, students routinely smoked in class, in front of oblivious teachers who didn’t recognize the vape pens for what they were.

Cho, who had moved with her family from Washington state in 2018, told the jury she was shocked by the sheer number of students at George Washington who were using Juuls. Small, sleek, and very portable, they looked like phone chargers and could easily be hidden in the long sleeves of hoodies from which students could — and would — discreetly smoke during class.

“Students would Juul or vape in almost every class I was in,” Cho said.

And while some students used the Juul pens in class, others took them in the bathrooms, sometimes disappearing for so long during class time that teachers would end up devoting their attention to tracking down the missing students rather than working on lessons with students still in the classroom, according to Lingell.

Cho, echoing Lingell, said that use of Juuls was so heavy in the mornings that when she walked into the school’s bathroom in the morning or at lunchtime, “you’d be hit in the face by a fruity fog.”

Students charged their Juuls in the electrical outlets of their classrooms or in the USB ports on their school-issued laptops, said Cho. Juuls were everywhere, and Cho recalled seeing discarded Juul packaging and emptied pods littering classrooms and hallways.

There were immediate health concerns, as well, Cho said. Students would get “nic-sick,” especially in the mornings, but “they would also get — pardon my French — 'nic shits' which was when vaping a lot in the morning would accelerate their need to use the bathroom," she added.

To combat the use of vape pens in the bathrooms, George Washington administrators decided to close the bathrooms while classes were in session, opening them during breaks and lunch. Cho and several friends, however, protested that move arguing in a letter to the school’s principal that doing so was a violation of students’ privacy and only made things worse for the school’s female students who might be dealing with IBS or menstrual issues.

On top of that, if students couldn’t smoke in the bathrooms, she said, they would simply seek out other places around the school to do so instead, taking even more time away from the classroom.

“Students would leave classrooms, often as groups, to go get their nicotine fixes and I figured if the bathrooms were locked, students might be out of the learning environment even longer,” she said.

Juul and its parent company Altria — formerly Phillip Morris of Marlboro fame — fought San Francisco Unified right up to the eve of trial, arguing the district had no right to file a public nuisance suit because Juul products had not caused the district injury. U.S. District Judge William Orrick III, presiding over the trial, rejected the argument.

"These arguments are weighty and could dramatically impact the scope of damages or nature of abatement to which SFUSD might be entitled if the jury finds Altria liable for nuisance," Orrick wrote in an April 10 denial of summary judgment, adding that, at a minimum, the school district not only has the authorization, but "has sufficient evidence of injury to its property at this juncture to proceed with its nuisance claim."

The trial continues next week.

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