New settlement in vaping lawsuit brings Midlands school district’s payout to more than $1M

Craig Mitchelldyer/AP

Lexington 1 schools are slated to receive more than $1 million as part of a national settlement against e-cigarette makers.

The school board on Tuesday approved a settlement with Altria, the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris, which will award the school district a gross recovery of $249,951. The district previously received a settlement of $829,853 from electronic cigarette company Juul as a part of the same lawsuit.

Altria is a 35% owner of Juul, which manufactures vaping devices that allow smokers to inhale an amount of nicotine as a vapor. The devices have grown in popularity in recent years as an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes.

The school district in central Lexington County was one of several nationwide that joined the lawsuit in a northern California federal court. When the school board approved Lexington 1’s participation in the suit in 2020, it was the first school district in South Carolina to sign up to the nationwide legal action.

The lawsuit was spurred by a rise in vaping among high school students in the Palmetto State in recent years, with data showing electronic smoking devices are now students’ preferred method of using tobacco. At the time, Lexington 1 reported it had seen in-school discipline referrals for vaping rise from 147 in the 2017-18 school year to 358 in 2018-19. The lawsuit centered on what efforts if any Juul had made to discourage the underage use of its products.

Attorney David Duff told the board Tuesday that between 60% and 70% of the settlement should be dispersed to the district by mid-December. Lexington 1 has not yet identified how it will spend the money.

When the school district filed the lawsuit, Juul had just opened a production facility with plans for more than 500 jobs in Lexington County in 2019. Lexington County Council approved an incentive package for the $125 million project, but by the end of 2020 the plant had closed, partly in response to new restrictions on vape products and what a Juul spokesperson called the need to “earn the trust of society.”

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the Lexington 1 board approved joining another class-action lawsuit, this time against a host of social media companies. The district accuses the companies’ platforms of having a similarly deleterious effect on students and their education.

“They’re on so frequently and so long, they become quote ‘addicted,’” Duff told board members. “In a different way than e-cigarettes and vaping, but with the same outcome.”

The litigation, which Duff said several other school districts in South Carolina have also signed up to, targets social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others. The suit claims the companies have harmed children through inadequate age verification, a lack of parental controls, constant notifications and algorithms that encourage “endless scrolling,” Duff said. Experts say an excessive use of social media can have a negative impact on young people’s mental health.

The school board voted unanimously to join the suit led by Kansas City-based law firm Wagstaff and Cartmell.