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An alarming number of kids vape in school. Pinellas wants to sue Juul.

About 20 percent of Pinellas students ages 11 to 17 used vapes in 2018. That’s higher than the state average.

LARGO — Pinellas County is poised to become the fourth school district in Florida to join a growing federal class action lawsuit against Juul Labs Inc., a top manufacturer of electronic cigarette devices called vapes that have found their way into classrooms across the country.

The suit alleges that Juul used dishonorable marketing tactics to target teens as customers, like offering fruity flavors and hiring social media influencers to vouch for the product. An attorney representing the plaintiffs recently told Pinellas school officials the company “set out to make smoking great again” while downplaying the health risks of vapes.

Nearly 100 school districts nationwide have joined the lawsuit, including those in Florida’s Palm Beach, Brevard and Seminole counties. Officials in Pinellas still must formally vote to join, but all expressed support at a recent School Board workshop, where they discussed what many have described as an “epidemic” in local schools.

Students as young as sixth grade have been found using vape products in school hallways and bathrooms, while others blow clouds of smoke into their backpacks in class. Meanwhile, enrollment in the county’s tobacco clinic, meant for kids caught with smoking products on campus, has spiked 738 percent in the last two years.

The same situation has unfolded at schools throughout the country, according to news reports. A high school in Alabama recently removed doors from some bathrooms to stop students from using the space to smoke. A school district in Texas started requiring students to roll up their sleeves so educators could check for vaping devices.

Federal officials have taken notice of Juul’s popularity with students, too. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, criticized Juul and other vape manufacturers in 2018, citing a “growing youth addiction.”

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform took up the issue in July, with Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., crediting Juul for ramping up youth nicotine use 78 percent between 2017 and 2018. He said Juul visited schools “under the guise of anti-vaping presentations” and worked to make their product “irresistible” to kids.

About 20 percent of Pinellas students ages 11 to 17 used vapes in 2018, according to data by the Florida Department of Health. That’s up 10 percent since 2016, and about 4 percent higher than the state average.

In recent statements, Juul has said it is working to “combat underage use” of its products by shutting down the company’s social media accounts and ramping up efforts to make sure retailers comply with age limits, among other measures.

“Youth vaping in America has become a serious and urgent problem, and ... we have no higher priority than combating youth use,” an August statement reads. “As data has emerged about the scope of the youth vaping issue, we have taken a series of escalating steps to combat youth access, appeal, and use of vapor products.”

Rene Flowers, like other Pinellas School Board members, blames Juul’s marketing strategy, which has seen growing criticism for focusing on teens.

Rene Flowers

“When you put flavors in something to make it taste like strawberries or piña colada … when you use social media influencers affirming that the product is safe and cool, you’re going to have kids looking at that,” she said. “In order for (Juul) to keep their business going, they’ve got to have a market for it. And that market, unfortunately, has been our students.”

It’s true that teens have flocked to Juul, said Skylar Strickland, the 30-year-old owner of Tubular Tokes smoke shop in St. Petersburg. Students from local high schools regularly show up at his store, wearing backpacks and school lanyards, he said, despite the neon pink and green signs that say “MUST BE 21 TO PURCHASE VAPES.”

Related: Age limit now 21 across US for cigarettes, vapes

“We get some great fake IDs,” he said. “Then we laugh in their faces and tell them to get the hell out.”

Strickland opened Tubular Tokes at the start of 2018, just as Juul started “blowing up." The company marketed itself as a “hip product” and hired young, attractive models to advertise their vapes on social media, he said.

“It was monkey-see, monkey-do,” Strickland said, and "Juul simply dethroned cigarettes.”

Kids try to buy vaping products at Tubular Tokes smoke shop in St. Petersburg, despite signs that tell them they are too young. “We get some great fake IDs,” owner Skylar Strickland said. “Then we laugh in their faces and tell them to get the hell out.” [MEGAN REEVES | Times]

Teens have also tried to purchase Juul products at Sunoco on Central Avenue and 16th Street N in St. Petersburg, said clerk Eri Thanasi. She said she often sees students standing outside the store, asking older customers to buy pods, or refill cartridges, for them.

"The teenagers are hoping and wishing,” she said. “They will curse you out when you say no.”

Most students in the tobacco clinic, part of a long-held partnership between the school district and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, say they vape “because it’s cool,” said longtime instructor Iris Merryweather. About 550 students went through the program last year and almost all use vapes.

Iris Merryweather has taught in Pinellas County's tobacco clinic for more than two decades. [Courtesy of Iris Merryweather]

They tell Merryweather that it’s fun to do “vape tricks," like blowing smoke rings or giant clouds. They say Juul helps them fit in, she said.

“They often don’t understand that they’re using a tobacco product until we explain it to them,” she added, even though many report experiencing chest pain, mouth tenderness, headaches and shortness of breath.

"They’re already seeing the effects on their bodies, and it’s only going to get worse.”

School Board member Nicole Carr said her concerns are two-fold: Juul disrupts the school day, but it also has the potential to have widespread health effects on youth. There is less research on Juul than traditional cigarettes, and it is taking some time for society to catch up at the rate students are reaching for the products, she said.

“Juul’s marketing was done in such a way that it preyed upon the vulnerability of our youth, and that to me is really disturbing," Carr added. “It seems so apparent that it was targeted to create a new generation of consumers."

Lawyers from The Maher Law Firm in Winter Park expressed confidence in the case during their Feb. 18 presentation to the School Board, but said reversing the student vaping trend will require policy change and community education in addition to litigation.

“Juul has already lost this battle in the court of public opinion,” said attorney John Kieffer. “We will argue that this is a plague a company unleashed on our schools."