Banning E-Cigarettes on College Campuses is a Questionable Policy

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Colleges all over the country are banning smoking on campus. Many students feel as though such measures are a challenge to their rights, while others are strongly campaigning for the smoking bans. As schools continue to deliberate on whether they will follow the national trend, they must answer another difficult question: should electronic smoking devices be included? E-Cigarettes are becoming more popular, especially with youths, and is now a 1.5 billion dollar industry based on 2013 estimates.

Some universities have already taken a proactive stance on this issue. The University of Illionis and Ohio State University, in addition to many others, plan to ban e-cigarettes along with the smoking of all tobacco products. Is it possible that such action against e-cigarettes is just a knee-jerk reaction to a misunderstood piece of technology? It seems that a brief investigation into the potential dangers of e-cigarettes and tobacco will help shape our ethical intuition on whether they should be included in the bans.

Most people align electronic smoking devices with traditional tobacco products because intuitively it makes sense to lump them all together. Thus, a ban on smoking tobacco ‘should’ entail a ban on using electronic smoking devices. I think it is fair to say that this ‘lumping together’ may be a hasty action. There are noticeable differences between such products, and further research will only continue to confirm this. Those who want to ban smoking tobacco from college campuses have a justification for wishing to do so. The question is, do e-cigarettes meet the justifications that support banning smoking of tobacco? If they do, then maybe it is intelligible to lump them together with tobacco products. If not, then maybe it is an unfair move to prohibit such devices on campuses.

What is the justification for sweeping bans against tobacco smoking?

The most powerful argument for ‘legislation’ that supports the banning of smoking would be the harmful effects of Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS). There have been many studies such as the 1997 Californian Environmental Protection Agency that report on the health effects of exposure to ETS. They “concluded that chronic, cumulative exposure—such as experienced by those living for years with smokers or who work in indoor environments where smoking is permitted—can increase the probability of dying from lung cancer by 20 percent, from heart disease by 30 percent, and can exacerbate asthma in children by 60 to 100 percent.” However, these documented health concerns, and many others, arise from exposure to second hand smoke while indoors. We find that the risks involved with second-hand smoke and the threat of ETS changes quite significantly when smoking occurs outside. This has to do with the fact that smoke can dissipate at a much greater rate because “unlike indoor tobacco smoke, which can persist for hours, researchers found that outdoor smoke disappears rapidly,” says Neil Klepeis, assistant professor (consulting) of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford.

In fact, research published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene documented the presence of ETS on college campuses in the outdoors. They found that exposure to ETS is highly relative to the proximity of the smoker. Once you are more than six feet away from the source of the ETS, the risks greatly diminish to the point where no threat is present. In a six week experiment by researchers at the University of Georgia, “students spent periods of six hours at a time seated in outdoor areas—including a bar, restaurant, and open area on the school’s campus—where smoking was permitted.” Interestingly, they found that, students sitting in an open-air part of campus experienced negligible levels of tobacco exposure.

Does this mean anybody should be able to smoke anywhere outside? Probably not. Researchers have discovered that when you are in close proximity to a smoker outdoors, you are exposed to high concentrations of toxic ETS. However, there seems to be good evidence to support the safety of designated smoking areas. The data indicates that there is no risk of exposure to the negative effects correlated with ETS when one is a safe distance away (usually more than six feet). It appears that the justification for campus wide bans on traditional tobacco products may stand on shaky ground and is ethically questionable.

What does this mean for electronic smoking devices?

It is clear that banning devices such as e-cigarettes is simply a convenience policy and one that lacks substantial justification. This is for two reasons. First, e-cigarettes do not release nearly the same amount of toxins into the air associated with tobacco products. I will say that there is still more research that needs to be done on e-cigarettes, and that my claim could be proven false with more research. However, preliminary studies have shown these devices to be much less dangerous than tobacco. In a recent study published in Nicotine and Tobacco Research, change in air quality was measured as people and machines generated vapor in an enclosed space. (Vapor is produced from e-cigarettes, as opposed to smoke.) There were two important discoveries from the study. The first is the significantly smaller levels of nicotine in the air. Reuters reports,

the researchers measured nicotine levels of 2.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air in the first study. Nicotine levels from e-cigarettes in the second study were slightly higher at about 3.3 micrograms per cubic meter. But tobacco cigarette smoking resulted in nicotine levels ten times higher at almost 32 micrograms per cubic meter. 

Compared to tobacco, electronic smoking devices release twelve times less nicotine into the air. It is also important to note that nicotine is not as dangerous as some may believe. Maciej Goniewicz, a cancer researcher in the Department of Health Behavior at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, says “the exposure to nicotine is lower when compared to exposure from tobacco smoke. And we also know that nicotine is relatively safer when compared to other dangerous toxicants in tobacco smoke.”

Another important finding from the study was that the presence of toxins was also significantly less. The researchers found that “E-cigarettes also produced some particulate matter, but regular cigarettes produced about seven times more. E-cigarettes didn’t change the amount of carbon monoxide or other gases in the air.” The distinction between the level toxins and nicotine released into the air from electronic cigarettes and tobacco should give cause for universities to cease from lumping them together. There really is a difference.

Second, banning e-cigarettes lacks substantial justification is that all of the stated harms associated with e-cigarettes have been discovered from studies conducted indoors, in enclosed spaces. There has yet to be any research into the effects of e-cigarettes on air quality when it occurs outside. However, I think we can make some assumptions what the research will yield, based on the findings from traditional tobacco smoke. We see a significant drop in the threat of ETS when smoking occurs outside. It seems plausible to conclude that e-cigarettes, when smoked in the outdoors, will not present a serious threat to others around them. We also know that indoors, electronic smoking devices produce much smaller amounts of nicotine and particulate matter. At the very least, designated smoking areas seems to be more than enough precaution. Universities should halt their hasty, and unsubstantiated, movements to rid these devices from campus. They need to justify their case for such actions, as it appears to be ethically and scientifically questionable.


 [NY Daily News] [Tobacco Control] [Stanford] [Time] [BusinessWeek] [The Lantern]

Bo Donoghue

Featured image courtesy of [Lindsay Fox via Flickr]

Bo Donoghue
Bo Donoghue is a student at The George Washington University. Contact Bo at



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