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Legislation, Lawsuits, Education: Broward Leaders Attack Teen Vaping

Jessica Bakeman
Erin Nessmith has filed a class-action lawsuit against e-cigarette companies after her 15-year-old daughter Ashlynn, left, became addicted to vaping. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, right, looks on during the press conference at the Weston YMCA.

Broward County lawmakers, school district officials and parents are launching a multi-front war against e-cigarette companies, which they argue are targeting teenagers in hopes of addicting them to nicotine.

“Their only purpose, let’s be very clear, is to hook another generation of smokers — or vapers,” Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said during a news conference Friday morning at the YMCA in Weston. “I mean, their job is to make money.”

Wasserman Schultz is pushing a bill, dubbed the PROTECT Act, that would allocate $500 million over five years to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address e-cigarette use, or vaping. The funding would be used for research as well as distributed to state and local governments for education campaigns aimed at curbing vaping among teens.

More than a quarter of high school students in Florida have tried vaping, according toa 2018 survey by the state Department of Health.

A spokesman for JUUL Labs, a leading e-cigarette company that was mentioned by name frequently through the press conference, said in an e-mailed statement that its product is designed to be used as an alternative to traditional cigarettes for adults only.

"We do not want non-nicotine users, especially youth, to ever try our product," the spokesman, Ted Kwong, said. "To this end, we have launched an aggressive action plan to combat underage use as it is antithetical to our mission."

A Sarasota couple recently launched a class-action lawsuit against JUUL and other e-cigarette companies after their 15-year-old daughter became addicted to vaping.

“They are using our children once again to replace the previous generation of smokers, who have either died or were able to quit,” said Erin Nessmith, the mother who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Nessmith said her daughter Ashlynn’s addiction has led to medical problems and interrupted her education.

“Her life was crumbling in every way. She quit softball, which is something she loved since the age of 5. Her grades majorly dropped as she started skipping classes to vape with her friends,” Nessmith said.

Nessmith said she had to take Ashlynn out of school, and now the teen will have to repeat her sophomore year.

“Our story doesn’t have a happy ending just yet, but we certainly won’t let JUUL be the defining chapter,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Broward County school board has just amended its policies for how to discipline students who are caught vaping in schools, adding anti-tobacco curriculum programs to be used during in-school suspensions. A representative from the school district said the number of tobacco-related incidents doubled between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, although the specific numbers were not yet available. She said vaping was the culprit.

Broward County school board member Robin Bartelman said vaping can lead to lifelong consequences for students, if they accidentally or purposefully use an e-cigarette that delivers oil containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Getting caught vaping THC at school can lead to a yearlong expulsion and a third-degree felony, limiting students’ options for going to college and receiving financial aid, Bartelman said.

The school district plans to start more anti-tobacco clubs, which allow students to educate each other about the risks of using e-cigarettes. Students will create public service announcements, as well.

Ashley Thompson, a 16-year-old rising senior at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, is a student advocate working against tobacco use. She said students are attracted to e-cigarettes because of their flavors; her peers report the most popular are mango and mint.

Education about e-cigarette use among teens isn’t just for the kids themselves; it’s for their parents, too, said Bartelman, the Broward school board member.

Some parents don’t know that e-cigarette devices look like flash drives and can be easily hidden or disguised. Bartelman said there was a recent incident with a Broward County student who had “bedazzled” an e-cigarette device and was wearing it in her hair like a barette.

“Parents need to open their eyes,” Bartelman said.

Correction: An early version of this story incorrectly reported that the Nessmith family is from Broward. They are from Sarasota. 

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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