The Higley Unified School District Governing Board is expected this Wednesday to decide if it wants to join a lawsuit to recover damages from electronic-cigarette maker JUUL.
Attorney William Shinoff from the San Diego-based Frantz Law Group pitched the proposal to the board at a meeting earlier this month. Shinoff will not be paid unless the district wins the class-action suit in federal court.
“There’s probably around 150 school districts already involved in this litigation and there are six school districts in Arizona already involved,” Shinoff said. “I’m here to offer you the opportunity for Higley to get involved in this litigation that is already on-going.”
Kyrene Elementary School District, Phoenix Union High School District, Riverside, Tolleson and Tucson school districts have joined the lawsuit and Tempe Union High School District will be voting to join next month, Shinoff said after the meeting.
The district has seen a number of student disciplinary cases related to vaping, according to Superintendent Mike Thomason.
“For the Higley Unified School District, we know that each of our middle schools and high schools have added administrative personnel to help deal with some of the disciplinary issues caused by vaping in our school district,” Thomason said.
“We’ve had to put in cameras, we’ve also had to put in extra sensors in the bathrooms that we’ve been trying out on a basis to see if they are working,” he said. “So, this is where the actual real cost to our school district is taking into account.”
He said the administrative costs alone and time in dealing with disciplinary issues related to vaping have been an issue – “not to mention the harm it has done to our community and to our students.”
“We’ve been hearing in the board room and seeing parents come to us begging for school support and for school resources to be utilized to help us deal with this issue,” Thomason said.
Shinoff said e-cigarette use among high school and middle school students increased 900 percent between 2011-15 and that between 2017 and 2018, the number of young people using e-cigarette increased by 1.5 million.
The strides schools have made in curtailing tobacco use among students are being undone, primarily by JUUL Labs, through its “deceptive” marketing targeting teenagers and promotion that its products were safer than cigarettes, according to Shinoff.
The $32-billion tobacco company entered the e-cigarette market in 2015 and now controls 82 percent of it and reported sales reaching $942.6 million in June 2018, he said.
“A big part of their success was because of the innovation of their product,” Shinoff said. “The big issue they knew with cigarettes and why people were limited in the amount of cigarettes they used was from the hit that you would get from smoking cigarettes, the throat burn.
“And so what they did is they’ve invented what’s called nicotine salts that’s in their pods. What that did was eliminate the hit from the inhalation so there wasn’t that throat burn and so what they’ve now done is (increased) the ability to use their product a lot.”
Shinoff said the company intentionally named its pods Crème Brulee, Snow White’s Demise and Fruit Medley to attract teen users and used influencers and social media to promote their products and advertised on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
A pod contains 10 times more nicotine than a cigarette and kids don’t realize it, Shinoff said.
“When you go and speak to kids about this product, 95 percent of them don’t have a clue what’s in it,” he said. “They have no clue what the effect is. What they don’t understand is the real reason why they are using this product all the time is they are addicted.”
Because JUUL’s use has invaded campuses, schools have had to direct resources to combat it, he added.
He cited the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization, which found in 2019 that over 40 percent of all teachers and administrators reported that their school uses camera surveillance near the school’s restroom and 23 percent reported using assigned teachers for restroom surveillance.
And, 12 percent reported devices placed inside restrooms to monitor the air and 9 percent reported restroom doors removed to prevent JUUL use.
Shinoff said the lawsuit would hold JUUL and other companies accountable and help the district recoup past and future costs related to vaping.
The law firm also would provide districts with free educational workshops to students and parents on the harms of e-cigarettes and how to find support for students who are trying to kick the habit.
Under the proposed contract, if the lawsuit settles on or before Dec. 31, the district would pay 20 percent of its money settlement for attorney fees. If the suit continues after Jan. 1, 2021, the district would fork over 25 percent of its recovery for attorney fees. The district pays nothing if there is no monetary recovery.
Shinoff added that his firm’s normal attorney fee is 40 percent of the award.
Shinoff said if there is no resolution, the judge has indicated he wanted a trial by next summer. He added the maximum amount of time requested of district staff would be eight to 10 hours total.
Thomason said his office has worked on the contract with Frantz for the past three to four months.
Thomason said the district has been approached by other law firms to join their vaping lawsuits but he picked Frantz because of various factors – including the cost, what’s best for students and the firm’s ability to come in and immediately work on a prevention program.
Board Vice President Kristina Reese asked for the likelihood the suit would be resolved before the end of the year.
Shinoff said the case has been going on for quite some time there was a chance for a resolution before Dec. 31 but he couldn’t guarantee it.
“Because of budgetary constraints of the district, we’ve had a lot more things that we wanted to do that we couldn’t afford,” Thomason told Shinoff. “Will that be taken into account and will we be able to put some of those measures in place?”
Shinoff responded yes.
“We would go in and look at the needs; what does this specific district need,” Shinoff said. “Why this particular case is unique is that it’s not a class action where we just look at everyone as the same. We look at each one of our districts individually and look at their specific situation and their needs.”
Board member Greg Wojtovich asked if there was anything in the lawsuit that enable the district to financially duplicate a program that is being used successfully elsewhere.
Shinoff responded his firm would put the district in touch with organizations offering grants.
“I’m totally in support of this,” board member Scott Glover said. “I hope we can vote as a board to move forward on this as soon as possible.”