While the federal government decides how to regulate electronic cigarettes, many university officials across the country are moving ahead with their own rules about e-cigs on campus.
As of Jan. 1, the University of California at Merced will be “smoke and tobacco free,” said Kristin Hlubik, UC Merced’s health promotion coordinator. All 10 campuses in the University of California system are following a mandate made last year by then-Board of Regents President Mark Yudof.
Several other universities already have prohibited e-cigs or are set to ban them in upcoming years.
At Idaho State University, Missouri State University and the University of Texas at Austin, for example, officials have updated their smoking policies to ban e-cigs. The products soon will be prohibited at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and all campuses in the University of California system.
Other campuses permit the products, though they might follow the lead of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and discourage their use.
Such inconsistency among university policies reflects a lack of consensus among scientists and public health experts as to what exactly e-cigs are, their long-term effect on health and how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should regulate them.
“The products are relatively new, but the science about them has been developing,” said Karen Williams, the assistant director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. “I think it’s really just a matter of time as everyone learns about the products before all universities take the step to prohibit them on campus.”
Electronic cigarettes look like traditional cigarettes but are battery-operated products that heat tobacco-derived nicotine and other chemicals into a vapor that the user inhales, a process called “vaping.”
In 2010, the FDA determined that certain e-cigs were unapproved pharmaceutical products and detained or refused imports from some manufacturers. One manufacturer fought back, and a federal court held that e-cigs aren’t pharmaceutical products but that the FDA could regulate them as tobacco products.
“It seems pretty clear that the FDA will regulate electronic cigarettes like tobacco products,” said Theodore L. Wagener, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center who’s researching the products.
Regulating the cigarette look-alikes as tobacco products would make them subject to the age, marketing and packaging restrictions that apply to traditional cigarettes. It might prohibit sales to minors, ban advertising on television and require warning labels on packaging.
The White House is reviewing a proposal from the FDA; the process might last 90 days or more.
Meanwhile, the debate about the potential benefits and risks of e-cigs has escalated.
Advocates promote the products as healthier alternatives to cigarettes that give users their nicotine fix without the toxins and carcinogens generated by burning tobacco. Some advocates say e-cigs might help smokers quit.
But critics say e-cigs may increase nicotine addiction and tobacco use among young people; they also point out that the FDA says not enough research has been done for consumers to know whether e-cigs are safe or harmful.
Despite those unknowns, e-cigs are gaining popularity among young adults.
The American Journal of Public Health said last year that 53 percent of young adults who’d heard of e-cigs thought they were less harmful than traditional cigarettes, and almost 45 percent thought e-cigs could help them quit smoking. Another study found that 50 percent of young adults would try e-cigs if friends offered them one.
While more than 1,000 campuses nationwide are smoke-free, some universities’ policies leave a loophole for e-cigs – which, after all, are smoke-free.
At Pennsylvania State University, for example, the no-smoking policy enacted in 2006 doesn’t mention e-cigs, so students may use the products on campus, said Annemarie Mountz, the university’s assistant director of public information.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the no-smoking policy implemented in 2008 also doesn’t mention e-cigarettes, but university officials are wary of students using the products.
At UC Merced, where smoking had been allowed 25 feet from any building, some students said they don’t agree with the new policy.
Hlubik said she has heard of some push-back from smokers, but hears mostly approvals for the coming policy change. During orientations for new students, Hlubik said, she made incoming students aware of the coming ban.
“In some situations, students started clapping,” she said. “They were very excited that this was happening.”
Ed Lanfranco is not excited. The 50-year-old Fresno resident, studying for a Ph.D. in world cultures, described himself as a “sensitive smoker” as he stood near an ashtray provided by the campus outside the 25-foot radius of the library doors.
Lanfranco said the university is overstepping to regulate his habits. “I am adamantly opposed to it,” he said. “If the state of California wanted to make smoking illegal, that’d be fine,” he said. “But, in a public area with something that’s being taxed, I just think it smacks of hypocrisy.”
Lanfranco said smokers are a “dying breed,” so he admits it could be difficult to find many sympathetic classmates. He said he hasn’t made up his mind about how far he would take his protests.
“I’m unsure if I would obey any restrictions on smoking on campus,” he said. “I think there needs to be a compromise of a place for smokers to smoke.”
Kerry Lam, an 18-year-old freshman, sat on a UC Merced planter while he puffed a cigarette. The human biology major, who is originally from San Jose, said he wasn’t going to sweat the new rule because he has no power over it.
“I don’t think I can do anything about it,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. Lam, who has smoked for about four years, said he will probably have to pick up some nicotine gum or make an occasional trip off campus to partake in the habit.
On the other side of the library was Zahid Khan, a 22-year-old from the Bay Area. The chemistry major said he’s smoked a cigarette a few times in his life, but he supports the ban on tobacco.
The shift towards a campus without tobacco makes sense, Khan said. He noted that it meshes with the overall trend in the state.
However, does the university have the ability to regulate the ban?
Khan said he doesn’t buy it.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘This is wrong,’ you know,” he said. “But, can they police it?”
As UC Merced continues to grow, he said, it will only get harder to enforce the tobacco ban.