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Vaping settlement funds on their way to Marion County Schools

Jul. 29—FAIRMONT — Marion County Board of Education members received more details on the settlement structure breakdown between Juul Labs and Marion County Schools at a recent board of education meeting.

The school system, along with 21 other boards of education in West Virginia, joined a nationwide lawsuit against the e-cigarette maker, which in April agreed to pay $7.9 million to West Virginia.

"We have the highest rate of tobacco use, I believe, among teens in the United States," Charles Webb, the attorney for the school system, said. "It would stand to reason that when a vaping company markets and advertises their products as safe, non-addictive and (having) less nicotine than or in cigarettes, that West Virginia teenagers would pick up on that marketing and branding. And unfortunately, they did."

Webb said West Virginia had the highest rate of use per capita in the country. According to a study published by Drugwatch, 35% of the state's high school teens vape, leading the rest of the country in usage. Seventeen percent of middle schoolers also use e-cigarettes.

The lawsuit centered on marketing which Webb said targeted teenagers and children. Juul's claims that its products were fun, safe and non-addictive were untrue, which is why Marion County and schools across the state and country sued them, Webb said.

The settlement is confidential but Webb expects Marion County to receive its distribution sometime in the next six months.

Mark Olfert, a professor at the WVU School of Medicine Department of Physiology, Pharmacology and Toxicology and the Center for Inhalation Technology, said that one of the main findings and concerns to come out of research into vaping involves heart health. Although he doesn't mean to diminish the health impact of smoking, he said that vaping is likely to be a cardiovascular problem in a way that is probably much bigger or the same as smoking.

"One of the main findings we have is that when people vape, their arterial stiffness increases," Olfert said. "And this is a precursor to many, many cardiovascular, cerebrovascular diseases. such as stroke, heart attacks, aneurysms, atherosclerosis. For kids, the concern is even more because, as with younger individuals, nicotine has a particular effect with brain development."

According to Olfert, more than half of all high school and middle school students have tried these products. Fortunately, only half of those end up using it, but it's still higher than the national average.

What makes combating vaping in schools challenging is that many children don't see vaping as the same thing as smoking, Olfert said.

This is due to the successful marketing campaign that manufacturers of e-cigarettes have done to convince the public that vaping is less harmful than smoking. It's an existential issue for them, as purveyors of a single type of product whose use has plummeted for decades. Juul in particular marketed to younger generations in 2017 and 2018, Olfert said. Although e-cigarette aerosol is full of chemicals and metals, many believe that vape liquid is the same as juice that is simply vaporized.

"It's like they've taken the gun away from your head and they said, 'now I'm just gonna hold a knife to your head,'" Olfert said. "You know, so it's like, is that better?"

Also of concern is the effect vaping has on pregnant mothers. On tests done on rats, offspring have stiffer arteries and impaired blood vessel function. One in eight infants are born with some sort of substance exposure while in utero in West Virginia. This leads to poor health outcomes in adolescence and adult life.

However, one possible solution may lie with students themselves.

Olfert said the most surprising thing to come out of their research, is that the most effective way to discourage kids from smoking came from other kids. Between 10 and 15 years ago in Florida, a focus group of high school students was asked, 'what is the most effective way to communicate to your peers?' The campaign that emerged from that brainstorming produced some of the most effective anti-smoking attitudes among youth.

Through student summits In Marion County, School Superintendent Donna Heston said that county schools are following their own version of this. Student leadership asked for metal detectors to be installed as a way to detect vaping products, and with the help of county commission and homeland security, it was accomplished.

Heston said Marion County Schools will use the settlement money to help reimburse items that the school system bought to help decrease vape usage on campus. Although there has been an uptick in student usage at the schools, local schools are tailoring their approach to go beyond punitive measures into proactive ones.

"It is another thing and social issue that schools are asked to tackle," Heston said. "It's upon us to do everything that we possibly can to do that, and to work with our students and make them better, healthier, well informed individuals."

Reach Esteban at efernandez@timeswv.com