MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith speaks during a press conference on Monday in Rockville. Credit: File photo

Montgomery County’s school district will not sign on as a plaintiff in the county’s lawsuit against the manufacturers of electronic cigarettes.

In October, the Montgomery County Council and County Executive Marc Elrich announced the lawsuit, which targets the company Juul, one of the predominant vaping manufacturers in the country. The county claims Juul violated the Maryland Consumer Protection Act and the Montgomery County Consumer Protection Act by targeting its sales to youth.

Juul, which owns more than 75% of shares in the e-cigarette market, has disputed claims about the dangers of its products in other lawsuits filed across the country and denied allegations that it has targeted teens.

During a press conference this week, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said vaping is a problem in the school district that officials are working to address through education campaigns and conversations with families.

“I’ll say it very clearly and if the vaping people want to be mad at me, tough: Vaping is [as] bad of an idea as passing a [stopped] school bus,” Smith said. “There are some things that are just a bad idea, just like we’ve been telling people since the early 60s that smoking is a bad idea. … It’s a whole county, community, state and national issue and … I would call upon our elected officials to put very stringent restrictions in place around what’s available to kids because it’s not even reasonable what’s available to kids out there in society.”

The school board has met in closed session recently to discuss “pending and potential litigation matters related to the impact of e-cigarettes on school districts and other public agencies,” according to minutes posted after the meeting.

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When asked if MCPS is joining the county’s lawsuit, Smith said the school district has “been highly engaged with them on that question,” but doing so would be a long-term commitment that would take resources away from students. The school district will “be supportive and work with (county officials) to the degree it makes sense,” Smith said.

“Our mission is for our students and so to engage in something that would require a tremendous amount of resources — either staff and time or dollar resources — is not a good idea,” Smith said. “But we’ve had the conversation and … we will be right there next to them in conversations with distributors and vendors, and with national and state governments about what ought to happen around this.”

The county government hired a national law firm to take the lead of the litigation. The firm, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, LLP, will investigate and prosecute claims against Juul.

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The investigation would also involve Altria Group, the parent company of cigarette and tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris USA, which owns 35% of Juul. Phillip Morris is best known for Marlboro cigarettes, one of its best-selling products.

Montgomery County will pay legal fees on a contingency basis, but Robbins Geller would be responsible for out-of-pocket costs in investigating and prosecuting e-cigarette-related claims.

Montgomery County has recently taken a stern stance against e-cigarettes and vaping, especially focusing on deterring youth use of the products.

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The County Council is considering new legislation that would prohibit the sale of e–cigarettes within a half-mile of all middle and high schools.

Local vape shop owners say the legislation demonizes small business owners whose main business objective is to help adults stop smoking cigarettes.

President Donald Trump administration officials in September said they were working on a national ban of flavored e-cigarettes. Early this month, though, Trump refused to sign the “decision memo,” which would have enacted the ban, saying he feared it would lead to job losses, according to The Washington Post.

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Local legislation to ban the flavored products is being considered.

Last month, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it was investigating 1,299 cases of lung injury across 49 states, including 26 deaths associated with vaping products.

At least one person in Montgomery County has been hospitalized with a vaping-related lung illness, according to a statement by county Health Officer Travis Gayles in a September press conference. The person was between the ages of 18 and 24.

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“For 14-, 15- or 18-year-olds, it’s ridiculous it’s so available in our society and something needs to be done,” Smith said.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com