E-Cigarettes and New Smoke-Free Policies on College Campuses

As classes resume across the country this fall, the University of Iowa will join nearly 1,100 colleges and universities that have declared their campuses tobacco free. The new policy adds smokeless tobacco, snuff, water pipes and electronic cigarettes—or e-cigarettes—to their list of banned substances on campus, joining cigarette and cigar smoke under the school’s previous policy.  

Iowa is the only state that requires 100 percent smoke-free campuses at both public and private institutions; other states with campus smoking bans for public universities include Arkansas, Illinois and Louisiana. In these states, campus bans on smoking have either come from some separate legislation, such as Arkansas’ 2009 Clean Air on Campus Act, or as an expansion of previous smoke-free legislation, such as Iowa’s 2008 Smoke-Free Air Act.  

Advocates of smoke-free campus policies believe that these types of policies contribute to the overall health of the campus community. In an email sent earlier this spring to students, faculty and staff, University of Iowa President Sally Mason, now retired, said “the policy aims to support a healthy campus culture and promote the health and well-being of all campus community members.”

Violators could face $50 citations from campus police for noncompliance with the new policy.

Although the first campus to officially ban tobacco was Missouri’s Ozarks Technical Community College in 2003, the University of Iowa’s recent introduction of electronic cigarettes to the list of banned substances has added another layer to campus smoke-free and tobacco-free policies. Only Arkansas and Illinois require e-cigarette free campuses, although more than 700 colleges across 44 states have banned e-cigarettes on campus.  

E-cigarettes are battery-operated products designed as an alternative to traditional cigarettes. Instead of smoke, e-cigarettes emit an aerosol that contains nicotine, ultrafine particles and low levels of various carcinogens. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration points out that since e-cigarettes have not been fully studied “consumers currently don’t know the potential risks of e-cigarettes when used as intended, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or whether there are any benefits associated with using these products.” 

Advocates of smoke-free alternatives and those pushing for tobacco-free campuses agree on several things, including the prohibition of selling e-cigarettes to minors and appropriate labeling of products. Debates continue, however, about the potential secondhand effects of e-cigarettes. 

While some smoke-free alternative advocates highlight electronic products as an effective and relatively safer transition from traditional cigarettes, anti-smoking groups point to the harmful effects of e-cigarette aerosols. 

According to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, a national lobbying organization based in Berkeley, Calif., 10 chemicals in e-cigarette aerosols are found on California’s Proposition 65’s list of carcinogens and reproductive toxins, such as benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde, lead, nickel, nicotine and propylene glycol.

Making campuses smoke free is a more palatable choice for colleges than restricting all tobacco products and e-cigarettes, but this has not stopped college and university administrators from adding e-cigarettes to their campus smoking policies.

According to Michele Guerra, director of the Wellness Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the potentially harmful effects of e-cigarette smoke was enough to support a ban on the university’s campus.

“For us, the purpose of this policy is to rid the air of carcinogens on campus,” said Guerra.          

“For the time being, we are adding e-cigarettes to the list of banned substances because of their lack of regulation and preliminary reports emphasizing their potentially harmful effects,” she said.