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DIGGING DEEPER: FWCS suing Juul, claims company targeted children

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - The Fort Wayne Community Schools corporation is taking e-cigarette giant Juul to court.

This spring, attorneys acting on behalf of FWCS filed a federal lawsuit against the company, accusing it of targeting children through its marketing tactics, choice of flavors and other means.

The lawsuit -- which is hundreds of pages long -- is filed in the San Francisco division of federal court, and includes numerous examples of what the plaintiffs consider to be highly targeted advertising.

Juul Labs, Inc., is headquartered in San Francisco.

Advocacy Group Weighs In

"E-cigarettes were not all that popular among the youth until JUUL came on the scene, and they marketed to them like crazy," Nancy Cripe told ABC21.

She's the Executive Director of Tobacco Free Allen County.

"The bright colors, the flavors, the high-tech design -- that appeals to this generation of young people too," she said. "These things that look like flash drives. It's like it just blends right in with everything else they are carrying, and it makes it easy to conceal it from parents and authority figures."

A recent Indiana Youth and Tobacco survey showed more than a third of high school students in the state have tried the product.

The lawsuit cites national and state figures on Juul use among children. Though filed specifically on behalf of the Fort Wayne school system, it sets the stage for inclusion in what may become a class action matter.

Other school districts have filed nearly identical lawsuits, and a judge could combine them into one case to be handled by the court.

Information and Education

The Boys and Girls Club has partnered with FWCS to help reduce the use of Juul e-cigarettes and other vaping devices.

"We have a lot to fight and that is why the work that we do is so important," President and CEO Joe Jordan said. "It's more relevant today than ever before."

McMillen Health told ABC21 it, too, works with the district.

"We approach it from an informational perspective," Casey Knuth said. "We really try to stay away from scare tactics. We don't want to scare the kids away from these devices. We want to give them all of the info that they need to educate themselves and make their own choices for their bodies."

FWCS is seeking $75,000 in damages -- money that could be used to fund drug-prevention efforts in the classroom.

Juul's Response

In 2019, Juul announced that the company would halt its advertising campaign and pull its "fruity" flavors from stores.

The company declined our request for an on-camera interview, instead providing the following statement:

"We will continue to reset the vapor category in the U.S. and seek to earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, legislators, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes. As part of that process, the company reduced its product portfolio, halted television, print, and digital product advertising and submitted a Premarket Tobacco Product Application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration including comprehensive scientific evidence to support the harm reduction potential of its products and data-driven measures to address underage use. Our customer base is the world's 1 billion adult smokers. We will respond to the allegations through the appropriate legal channels."

FWCS issued a statement of its own, telling us that the district "is committed to teaching students how to have a safe and drug-free life. As a part of that, FWCS offers several programs throughout elementary, middle and high school to teach students about the dangers of harmful substances, including e-cigarettes. By joining the Juul lawsuit, we hope to send a message to Juul and other companies that preying on children by making addictive substances appear attractive will not be tolerated."

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Jonathan Shelley

Jonathan Shelley is the news director at WPTA TV, which he joined in 2016 following nine years in a similar role in New Orleans and previous news management positions in Oklahoma City and Las Vegas.

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Kaitlyn Kendall

Kaitlyn Kendall anchors ABC21 news at 5 and is the chief investigative reporter for the stations Digging Deeper team.

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