UI officials discuss ongoing e-cigarette debate


While an escalating trend of nicotine vaporizers has encompassed the area, the University of Iowa’s smoke-free campus policy makes no mention of e-cigarettes.

Battery-powered — with no use of fire to ignite, no smoke, and no tobacco — electronic cigarettes emit a vapor to the user composed of water, glycerin, ethanol, nicotine, and other elements.

Despite growing use on the national, state, and local levels, these devices have limited regulation.

Currently, they are not monitored by the FDA or regulated under the UI Smoke-Free Campus Policy, or the Smokefree Air Act. The statewide act, which went into effect July 1, 2008, predated the arrival of electronic cigarettes to the market.

This conundrum led to debate among UI Faculty Council members on Tuesday regarding its alleged conflict with university policy.

Though some council members argued e-cigarettes could aid in a smoker’s quitting, because technically, e-cigarettes are not a form of smoking, UI biostatistics Professor Jane Pendergast said she believes smokers — specifically students — think differently.

“In their minds, they are smoking,” Pendergast said. “And we’re trying to get through this the best we can, but I would at least like to do something to discourage it, even if it doesn’t fall exactly within the policy.”

Other universities in the region vary how they address e-cigarettes in their policies.

Iowa State University does not include e-cigarettes in its smoking policies. However, both the University of Illinois-Chicago and the University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana currently prohibit their use. 

“We just don’t know enough about it,” said UI internal medicine ProfessorFrancois Abboud. “If an academic institution is going to say, ‘This is bad for you, you can’t have it,’ then it better know what is bad.”

Johnson County Director of Public Health Doug Beardsley said he believes e-cigarettes will bring more potential health risks than general benefits.

“I know the advertisers say you’re just blowing out water vapor, well that’s … false,” Beardsley said. “You’re smoking nicotine … But it’s just too new, and we just don’t know what the health consequences are. Probably very small, it’s probably less addictive then tobacco, but again, why do we want to introduce another addictive substance to our society?”

While admitting several unknowns, Beardsley said overall, he supports banning e-cigarettes both on the UI campus and throughout the community.

“I think keeping the ban on smoking any kind of material is probably a good thing,” he said. “You’re creating a healthy environment, a healthy image, and promoting good, healthy behaviors through that policy. I think they should stand.”

Chuck Green, the assistant vice president for the UI police, said because the devices do not face current regulations, university law enforcement can do little to address the issue.

“Officers are not likely to comment on E-Cs in their written reports because they are not prohibited,” Green said in an email. “We are not tracking the use of E-Cs.  From a law-enforcement perspective, the use of E-Cs [are] no different than someone deciding to chew gum or drink a bottle of water in public.”

The notion remains to be seen that e-cigarettes can serve as a gateway to the use of traditional cigarettes.

“We are not qualified to answer this question; I do believe that is what the CDC is just beginning to investigate,” he said.

And while a clear decision regarding the policy was not reached, the Faculty Council intends to discuss it further during an Oct. 22 meeting.

“I don’t think it’s 100 percent clear whether electronic cigarettes would be included in the policy as currently stated,” UI law Professor Christina Bohannann said. “I think if you read through it as a lawyer would, there are things on both sides that would lead to some ambiguity.”

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