TRAVERSE CITY — The Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to join a class-action lawsuit against vape manufacturers that market products to children.
The board voted 7-0 on Monday to join an ongoing class-action lawsuit that alleges JUUL Labs, Inc., Altria and other vaping manufacturers “fraudulently and intentionally marketed products to children,” according to a memorandum on the litigation Superintendent John VanWagoner sent the board. The lawsuit was started by a group of California school districts seeking compensation for costs incurred by schools in efforts to combat the vaping epidemic.
In joining this lawsuit, TCAPS could be reimbursed for state aid lost in association with vaping suspensions and expulsions and the costs associated with purchasing and installing vape detectors. The school district could also be compensated for future costs incurred in handling the vaping epidemic.
Two schools within TCAPS’s Intermediate School District and 79 schools in Michigan have joined this lawsuit, according to the memorandum.
Joining the litigation costs TCAPS nothing; in the event that the case against the vape manufacturers wins, 75 percent of the winnings will go to the participating school districts and the remaining 25 percent will cover legal fees.
The CDC and the FDA label the trend of vaping among teenagers and young people an “epidemic.” According to the CDC and FDA’s 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), more than 2 million middle and high schoolers are using e-cigarette products in 2021.
Nearly 85 percent of youth vape users use flavored products, and about one in four use e-cigarettes daily, according to the NYTS.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer instituted an emergency rule banning flavored vape products in 2019, but her ban was rendered unenforceable by state courts. In 2021, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services officially pulled away from the battle to enforce the ban in search of alternative legislation to address the vaping epidemic in Michigan.
Vaping in schools is an issue TCAPS made efforts to address in 2018 with a three-month pilot program to put vape detectors in the halls, bathrooms and locker rooms in Central High School and West Senior High.
The vape detectors, meant to detect vapors in the air and notify administration, were loaned to TCAPS from the manufacturer free of charge. After the duration of the pilot program the vape detectors were returned to the manufacturer, so TCAPS did not end up buying them.
One member of the public, Kristen Abner, mentioned the lawsuit at the Monday meeting during the public comment section. Although the masking mandate was not being discussed during Monday’s meeting many members of the public, including Abner, spoke on the mandate.
“What efforts are being made to support many students that have fallen behind? And where’s your focus on education?” Abner said. “And instead of joining a national lawsuit against a vape manufacturer, why not put the time and effort towards cleaning up our schools?”
The discussion about the lawsuit between the board members was brief and not many questions or statements were put forward regarding the litigation before the unanimous vote.
“It seems again, without having any cost from our packets or the general fund, that it makes sense for me to support moving forward,” said Trustee Erica Moon Mohr.
Trustee Sue Kelly said the fact that the vapes are flavored are a major part of what compels her to vote to join the litigation.
“I think that’s really where the intentionality speaks to me,” Kelly said “I mean, it’s one thing if they’re producing materials that are detrimental to health but marketed to adults who are making decisions, and … think it’s just wrong to be creating this type of situation and marketing it to children.”
Trustee Flournoy Humphreys said she agreed with Kelly’s points about the lawsuit.
“I think it’s important that we be part of this lawsuit for those reasons,” Humphreys said. “I agree with Sue.”
Following the board’s vote on Monday, all that is needed for TCAPS to become officially involved in the lawsuit is for VanWagoner to sign a document on behalf of the district.