Colorado to spend $20 million of Juul settlement on grant program to improve youth mental health

A student stands on a concrete step wearing jeans and holding a yellow backpack.
The aim of the new grant program is to keep children from turning to vaping as a way to cope. (Johner Images / Getty Images)

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Colorado will spend $20 million of a $31.7 million lawsuit settlement with e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs Inc. on a grant program aimed at improving youth mental health, state Attorney General Phil Weiser announced Tuesday.

The program will prioritize collaborations between school districts and community organizations. The aim is to address children’s mental health so they don’t turn to vaping as a way to cope.

“When you think about a challenge like youth vaping, you can think about addressing the symptom — the fact that people are vaping — or the underlying cause,” Weiser said in an interview after the announcement. “We’ve chosen to address the underlying cause.

“We know that because of mental health issues, people turn to substances like vaping. That’s why we’re going to the source to ask: How do we build better connections?”

The “how” will be up to the school districts, which will be invited to apply for grants later this year. The long lead time is intentional; Weiser said the goal is for districts to collaborate with one another and with local community organizations to come up with programs that help develop young people’s connections to trusted adults and to one another. Several Colorado foundations have offered to help facilitate those collaborations over the next six months.

“We do not want to prescribe what you need to do,” Weiser told a room full of educators at a Colorado Education Initiative summer conference, where he made the announcement. “We want to offer a broad opportunity around holistic youth mental health and leave it to you to think about what collaboration, what partnership, what strategies make sense in your community.”

Colorado sued Juul in 2020, alleging that it targeted youth with deceptive marketing and played down the health risks of vaping. The state was one of several that settled with the company. Juul did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement.

Thirty percent of Colorado high school students reported having vaped at least once, according to the most recent data from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which is administered every other year. Sixteen percent of students said they’d vaped in the last 30 days.

The $20 million grant program is the largest of three programs that Colorado is spending the Juul settlement money on. The others are a $6 million grant program aimed at nonprofit organizations and government agencies, and an $11.4 million grant program for school districts to address the youth vaping crisis. Those grant programs are already underway, and Weiser said the recipients will be announced soon.

Weiser said he sees the $20 million program as especially impactful because of the power of collaboration. “Schools are free to work with whoever in their community is serving young people,” he said. “In some communities, it might be a Boys and Girls Club. In other communities, it might be a library teaching kids to read.”

Grant applicants whose school districts serve a combined 23,000 students or more will be eligible for a $2.5 million grant over a three-year period, Weiser said. Applicants whose districts serve between 7,500 and 23,000 students will be eligible for $1.75 million over three years, and districts that serve fewer than 7,500 students will be eligible for $750,000.

Late last year, Colorado led a coalition of 42 attorneys general nationwide that sued Meta in a similar lawsuit alleging that its social media platforms, including Instagram, used deceptive practices to harm children and teens and addict them to social media.

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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