COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s fifth largest public school district has joined a class action lawsuit against Juul and other e-cigarette manufacturers, saying their products have damaged the health of students.

Richland Two trustee Amelia McKie said the Feb. 9 decision was prompted “because of the addictive nature of vaping, the potential for health problems and other consequences for our students, the negative impacts on our schools including having to address disciplinary issues and addiction issues.”

A copy of the district’s lawsuit could not be immediately provided to The Post and Courier.

In October, Lexington School District One became the state’s first to join the lawsuit against Juul, joining others from around the country along with municipalities and individuals also suing the company.

Richland Two Superintendent Baron Davis said adding the clout of a district with 27,000 students to the suit was as much a symbolic gesture as it was an attempt to hold vaping manufacturers responsible for the impacts of their products.

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“Sometimes as leaders, you take on issues and lend your voice so those who don’t have a voice can have the strength to do so. We have a big seat at the table in Richland Two, and we have to step up,” Davis said. “It’s not always about us and how about it impacts us specifically.”

According to a February 2020 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, more than 2,800 people have been hospitalized across the country because of lung complications tied to e-cigarettes, with 68 deaths. A 2019 survey of youth tobacco use, found 22% of South Carolina teens reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

But lacking specifics on how many Richland Two students vape, the portion that have experienced health problems because of it and without a clear understanding of how much money the district could recoup if the lawsuit is successful, some trustees were reluctant to join the suit.

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“I truly don’t want to receive funding that could actually go to school districts that could really utilize the money,” trustee Monica Elkins said. “I can’t support something in the dark.”

Juul launched an assembly plant in Lexington County in May 2019 to make e-cigarettes, a project that was expected to employ about 500 people. But the company closed it down last November, citing poor market conditions among strong political pushback.

The closure also affected Flex, an international electronics manufacturer that was a subcontractor to the vaping company with a West Columbia site next to the Juul plant near the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Before the Juul deal, Flex had about 230 full-time employees producing products for other industries.

Davis said if the district does receive a payout, the proceeds could be used in several ways, including setting up a scholarship for students pursuing health careers or more aggressive marketing and education campaigns around the dangers of smoking.

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