WASHINGTON -- 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.
Several universities have already 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.
Several 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, what their long-term impact on health may be 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.”
E-cigs 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 fixes without the toxins and carcinogens generated by burning tobacco. Some advocates also 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; 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; 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-cigs, but university officials are wary of students using the products.
“We consider them to be inconsistent with the goals of the policy, and, when asked, we have discouraged their use in our no-smoking areas,” said Susan Hudson, the outreach editor of UNC News Services.
Stanton Glantz, the director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, said the hype surrounding e-cigs as cessation devices might prompt students who were barred from smoking to start vaping.
“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence – people talking about how electronic cigarettes helped them stop smoking,” Glantz said. “There are even a few studies that seem to indicate they could be cessation devices. But there’s no conclusive, credible scientific evidence to prove they are.”
Glantz said he was concerned about data that showed that people who used e-cigs weren’t switching from traditional cigarettes but rather using both.
If someone made a 100 percent switch, Wagener said, most experts agree that e-cigs would be less harmful to the individual than traditional cigarettes.
“I explain it like someone deciding to go from eating a dozen doughnuts every day to just having one doughnut hole a day,” he said. “It’s much better for someone to use electronic cigarettes than normal cigarettes.”
Some university officials are working to close potential e-cig loopholes.
Gabriel Garcia, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is a leader of the campus’ smoke-free task force; the group of students, faculty and staff is spearheading plans to make the university either smoke-free or tobacco-free by 2015 and to encourage the two other campuses in the University of Alaska system to follow suit.
The task force prefers tobacco-free, and Garcia said the likelihood of students turning to e-cigs if the campus adopted a smoke-free policy contributed to his preference.
“The science is not clear about whether electronic cigarettes are a risk for users, and I wouldn’t want to promote them if the FDA finds that they are a risk,” Garcia said.
In October, the system’s Statewide Administration Assembly opposed the zero-tolerance smoke-free and tobacco-free campus initiative, finding that a majority of the faculty didn’t support it.
Students and faculty at Florida State University were more successful with their proposal that included banning e-cigs.
At first, several members of the university’s board of trustees questioned why they should include e-cigs as a banned product. Kevin T. Frentz, the university’s health promotion and policy coordinator, told the board that scientific research has yet to reveal the long-term health impact of e-cigs; he urged them not to allow students to use e-cigs until the FDA determines they’re safe.
Florida State is set to update its 2006 smoke-free policy to a tobacco-free rule, effective Jan. 1.
Officials at several universities have already specifically banned the products.
The University of Kentucky became a tobacco-free campus in 2009, and Kentucky State University recently did so, as well.
Georgia State University banned smoking and tobacco use of any kind, including e-cigs, last year. Even so, a university staff member said she still saw people smoking and wouldn’t be surprised if some were vaping.
“We’re in the city. Our campus is in a downtown area,” said Shineka Karim, an administrative assistant in the School of Public Health. “There are a lot of people here who are not students, not faculty and not staff, so the policy is difficult to enforce.”