ROGERSVILLE — The Hawkins County Board of Education will take a month to consider whether it will join a “mass action” lawsuit intended to punish vaping manufacturers for allegedly marketing their products to children and for the damage that vaping has caused.
On Thursday, the BOE heard a presentation from William Shinoff from the California-based Frantz Law Group who said 13 school systems in Tennessee have joined the lawsuit already and he will be speaking to many other systems in the coming weeks.
Shinoff, who addressed the BOE via Zoom, said his firm is currently working on the suit against two vape manufacturing companies: Juul Labs Inc. and Phillip Morris International.
In contrast to a class- action lawsuit, in a mass action lawsuit each school district will have its own case, but all of the cases are going to be joined together in one courtroom in San Francisco.
Health departments across Tennessee have been surveying students under the age of 18, asking if they have vaped within the past 30 days. Shinoff told the board that according to his research, the lowest number he’s seen in Tennessee who said they had vaped within the past 30 days was 40%.
“What this case is about is these companies intentionally marketed their products to children, and now we have a lot of children who are using the product,” Shinoff told the BOE. “Schools are being left in the unfortunate situation of trying to find the best way to deal with it. This case is about providing your district the resources to be able to battle this issue.”
Shinoff added, “We’re looking at items to help support deterrents of vaping on your campuses, support for the children who are currently dealing with the addiction to this product, and then educating children about why they should not be using this product.”
Among the anti-vaping resources Shinoff suggested could be part of proceeds from this lawsuit are the installation of vape detectors in bathrooms and funding to provide additional supervision staff.
Shinoff said the lawsuit is also seeking funding for school systems to increase support for children with vaping addiction.
“This product has 10 times the amount of nicotine as a cigarette, so it’s highly addictive,” he said. “When you’re dealing with children, and you’re dealing with nicotine addiction, there comes social and emotional issues. What this case is doing is also providing districts with the money to hire additional counselors to be able to help these kids deal with this issue.”
The education component of the lawsuit is most important, Shinoff said, because the product marketing created the misconception that the product is safe.
“A lot of kids don’t understand that there’s nicotine and chemicals in it, and how harmful they are,” he said. “With education, as we’ve seen with DARE, it helps bring down the number of kids using it.”
Aside from seeking money, the lawsuit is also asking the court to prohibit marketing aimed at children, similar to what the tobacco lawsuits achieved. The lawsuit is also asking the court to prohibit the sale of flavor pods that have attracted children to vaping.
BOE Chairman Chris Christian said he would like to take a month for the board, County Attorney Jim Phillips and him to review the lawsuit contract.
Phillips asked if the firm would defend Hawkins County in the event of a countersuit.
Shinoff said that he has participated in vaping lawsuits across the country, and not once has a countersuit been filed. If there was a countersuit, however, the law firm would defend it and hold the county harmless, he noted.
There would also be no funding expended by the county to participate in this lawsuit, Shinoff added. The firm retains 20% if the case is resolved within the first six months of joining the lawsuit and 25% if it is resolved after six months.
If there is no funding awarded to schools, the school system owes no money.
Phillips said he would have to review the contract before he could make a recommendation to the BOE, and Christian’s motion to table the lawsuit until April was approved unanimously.