Upshur Board of Education joins class-action lawsuit against e-cigarette companies

TENNERTON – Upshur County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to approve signing an agreement for legal services in an e-cigarette litigation lawsuit.

The case will be filed by attorney Rusty Webb of the Webb Law Centre, PLLC.

Upshur County Schools Director of School Safety and Emergency Preparedness Matthew Sisk told BOE members about a trend occurring in Upshur County Schools regarding nicotine usage.

“I would like to call your attention to nicotine trends within Upshur County Schools,” Sisk said, adding that he has tracked the discipline trends from 2013 to the current year. “The reason we picked the year 2013 is that that was the year e-cigarettes were first introduced on the market. However, if you look at the data that is provided, both Buckhannon-Upshur Middle and Buckhannon-Upshur High Schools, in 2013, the main form of nicotine usage within our schools was smokeless tobacco by far. That trend remained the same until 2017-2018.”

Sisk said e-cigarettes such as Juuls were introduced in 2015, and that not only does it appear more students moved to vaping, but it also seemed students who previously did not use nicotine were willing to use e-cigarettes.

“That is the first year [we started seeing] vapers in the schools,” he said. “Juul cigarettes were introduced in 2015 and you immediately see them being used in the schools. Not only do you see a complete flip between smokeless tobacco products, smoking and moving toward vaping, if you look at the numbers at B-UHS in 2018 and 2019, there is a higher nicotine usage in general, meaning these products are reaching students who were not exposed to nicotine at all.”

According to the American Lung Association, vape pens and JUULs, a type of e-cigarette, contain batteries that heat a special liquid into an aerosol that e-cigarette users then inhale. The liquid inside – sometimes referred to as ‘e-juice – typically contains nicotine derived from tobacco, propylene glycol, various flavorings and some other chemicals.

Sisk said the rise in vape usage is putting a burden on school administration, including the Prevention Resources Officers at the middle and high schools.

“Our PRO Officer who is here at this meeting tonight would tell you he spends a lot of time working on the vaping issue,” Sisk said. “We are also having to look at reviewing camera footage to catch students. The administration spends a lot of [on this issue] and it takes time to do investigation work.”

Sisk said the school is currently accepting quotes for the installation of vape detectors in the school restrooms.

“That is a primary point, in the bathrooms, where students cannot be monitored,” he said. “They are also focusing on vape detectors on the school buses because the drivers need to watch what is in front of them rather than what is going on behind them.”

Sisk said the school system will incur significant expenses because vape detectors are not cheap.

“We have had a lot of different firms who have reached out to us saying they would like Upshur County Schools to join a class-action lawsuit against e-cigarette companies – Juul in particular,” he said.

Sisk said although he dislikes “frivolous lawsuits,” sometimes legal action is warranted.

“But looking at this data, it is not frivolous,” he said. “There is a direct correlation between here in Upshur County with the release of e-cigarettes and how they did target teenagers and what we saw.”

Sisk told BOE members he was asking for their approval to join a class-action lawsuit being filed through attorney Rusty Webb with the Webb Law Centre.

“He comes recommended by the City of Buckhannon,” Sisk said. “Webb was the only attorney who seemed to have all of his ducks in a row before asking us to join the litigation. Nicholas County Board of Education has also signed on, and [some of] our other county commissions that have signed on as well.”

Sisk said essentially, through the agreement, Webb would receive 30 percent of any funds awarded in a settlement, and if the plaintiffs are awarded nothing, there is no fee.

“There is no risk for us to join,” Sisk said.

Upshur BOE Vice-President Katie Loudin made a motion to approve Upshur County Schools joining the class-action litigation through Webb and the motion received a second from BOE member Dr. Greenbrier Almond. The vote to join the litigation was unanimously approved by BOE members present, including President Dr. Tammy Samples.

Following the BOE meeting, Sisk said the data used to determine nicotine usage came from the discipline records at B-UHS and B-UMS.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Sisk said he feels that because e-cigarettes are small in size, it often takes some time for teachers, staff and administrators to recognize them.

“Unless you are looking for them specifically, they are difficult to find,” Sisk said. “I do think [those selling vapes and e-cigarettes] are targeting younger individuals to sell vaping devices. The flavors would appeal to younger individuals. Vaping devices have flavors – like cupcake and cinnamon roll – that would appeal to younger individuals.”

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