The Growing Debate Over E-Cigarettes On College Campuses

By Uloop Guest Writer on June 12, 2014


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News just in: as of this month, Oberlin, Ohio has included e-cigarettes in its anti-smoking ban, which forbids puffing away in public places.

The town of 8,300 residents is more influential than its size would indicate, given it is the home to Oberlin College.

It is a classic college town with the technical town and gown divide that defines other small cities in which a respectable institution of higher learning is one of the main employers.

These towns have divided agendas. They know full well that life relies in part on accepting a role of playing foster-home to hordes of 19 to 23-year-olds. And now the rule in Oberlin is no electronic cigarettes.

This may prompt a few hands to be raised in philosophy class. E-cigarettes (also called the electronic cigarette) are being promoted as a safer alternative to tobacco-burning cigarettes on one hand and as a new source of potential addictions on the other hand. And now Oberlin has decided it threatens someone in the vicinity through second hand smoke — or in this case, second hand vapors, as e-cigarettes are technically smokeless.

It is an interesting argument on symbolic terms alone. It starts with a known carcinogen, the tobacco burning cigarette. Now introduce into the picture a nicotine delivery system that is being touted by prominent scientists and others as a potential lifesaver for smokers.

On its own terms, what do you do with that?

Here, for example, is a group of 53 scientists who articulated their concerns in a letter to the World Health Organization in May. They said that banning e-cigarettes was premature, given that it was also a potential life saver for hundreds of millions of people hooked on cigarettes.

The numbers are easy to find. Five million people die each year from smoking, 480,000 of them in the United States. (That will rise to 8 million by 2030, says the U.S. Center for Disease Control.) About 18 percent of U.S. adults smoke and, not incidentally, 41,000 of the U.S. deaths each year related to smoking are attributed to second hand smoke.

But the Center for Disease Control also says, using figures dated 2011, that 68.9 percent of smokers want to stop smoking and that 42.7 percent of smokers attempted to quit in the last 12 months.

Three questions:

1. If we’re trying to eradicate smoking, partly because of the enormous societal burden of healthcare costs, then why would we eliminate an option that can wean smokers off of cigarettes?

2. We are also putting a lot of effort (to little avail) into slowing down young people from picking up the habit. Have we decided to give up on those who have already started?

3. The “pure” victims are those who never smoked, but were stricken by second hand smoke. What are the effects of second hand vapors? Does anyone have the answer to that?

Certainly, a group called Americans for Non-Smokers Rights calls for an outright ban on e-cigarettes, erring on the side of caution, it seems, as they concede that the ingredients of the vapor produced is largely unknown.

As a reporter, I am obliged to say that I smoked for more than three decades. I quit with the help of the patch once. I quit (I forget how) a second time. And I quit with the help of e-cigarettes for the third and final time about three years ago.

I took them on with the full intention and understanding that they would help me quit. So, up front I will say I wasn’t buying to become a lifelong customer, necessarily.

The beauty of the device, personal experience tells me, is that you can dilute the nicotine by the smallest fraction (read: by an unnoticeable fraction) every day. It took months for me to go from full nicotine doses to zero, but I kept my goal intact. Eventually I went up to the seller at the kiosk in the local mall and waved bye-bye. So, I am an admitted fan of the things.

Not every college town is banning e-cigarettes, of course, but local politicians are particularly cautious about scientific issues about which they feel ill-informed. On the local level, politicians do not have scientific advisories at their disposal that members of congress have and even then, like any politician, there is a tendency to favor the squeaky wheel.

The electronic cigarette industry needs to have vocal converts on its side. They need customers to speak up. After all, the patch is a nicotine delivery system that was quickly endorsed as a life-saver. Why take another choice away from consumers who profess a desire quit burning tobacco cigarettes, which are known to be lethal?

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