Ban First, Ask Questions Later: UCSD on Electronic Cigarettes

by Chase Donnally

While student opinion on the upcoming smoking ban at UCSD remains somewhat divided, more and more students seem to be questioning the UC system’s decision to ban electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) alongside tobacco products. E-cigarettes contain no tobacco, produce vapor instead of smoke, and do not have a “secondhand-smoke” effect. Considering all this, why would the school choose to include e-cigarettes in the ban as well?

In the original policy proposal, becoming “smoke-free” is defined as banning “smoking, use of smokeless tobacco products and the use of unregulated nicotine products.” At first glance, one might be under the impression that e-cigarettes would still be allowed. After all, they produce no smoke and contain no tobacco. However, despite containing no actual tobacco, the FDA still classifies them as a tobacco product because the nicotine in them is derived from tobacco. This classification is a result of a 2009 amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which defines tobacco products as any product “made or derived from tobacco.” Because of this classification, they do fall under the scope of the ban.

But why not make an exception for e-cigarettes? After all, they are certainly a good alternative to their deadly analog counterparts. On top of that, many smokers have reported success in quitting smoking entirely through the use of electronic cigarettes as a temporary replacement. Despite the fact that the FDA does not permit e-cigarette manufacturers to advertise their products as a quitting method, and likely will not do so before years of study, the personal experience of the many smokers who have successfully quit smoking should be reason enough to at least allow students to give it a try.

So what is the school’s reasoning for banning e-cigarettes? Well, UCSD’s official FAQ on the matter makes a number of ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims. They say that “[e-cigarettes] may be may be just as harmful, if not more harmful, than [analog cigarettes].” There is no evidence to support this claim. In a preliminary analysis on some samples of e-cigarette cartridges, the FDA did detect some tobacco related impurities in most of the cartridges, and found some tobacco-specific carcinogens in about half of them, and one out of the eighteen cartridges contained trace amounts of diethylene glycol, which is toxic to humans. Further study by the Journal of Public Health Policy found that none of the carcinogenic chemicals in cigarettes were present in e-cigarettes in anything more than trace quantities. While this does suggest that using e-cigarettes may be more harmful than not using them, this in no way suggests that e-cigarettes are more harmful than traditional cigarettes, and as the latter study concludes, e-cigarettes are a “much safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes.” For the University to suggest that e-cigarettes could be as harmful as tobacco cigarettes ignores significant scientific research on the subject.

In the same FAQ, they also say that e-cigarettes contain propylene glycol, and point out that it is also used in anti-freeze. This is true… sort of. Propylene glycol is the agent in e-cigarettes that gets vaporized, and it is used in anti-freeze – specifically, in non-toxic anti-freeze used in food and pharmaceutical products. The FDA has deemed it fit for human consumption, and it is also in ice creams, soda, and many other foods. If the school plans to ban e-cigarettes based on the argument that they contain propylene glycol, they ought to also ban these food items from being served on campus as well. More importantly, considering the method of delivery in e-cigarettes, propylene glycol is commonly used in fog machines, which will remain legal on campus after the ban. At best, the University’s characterization of this chemical as posing a serious health threat to students can be seen as ignorant and at worst it is purposefully misleading.

Reviewing the reasoning in their FAQ, the school seems to be grasping at straws when looking for justifications for banning e-cigarettes. The truth is that there does not exist much reason for it. E-cigarettes may be somewhat harmful to the health of the user, but given the evidence at hand, there is no reason to think that using e-cigarettes is any more harmful than consuming fast food, which will continue to be served on campus.

The only real reason the school has for banning e-cigarettes is image. The UC system does not care as much about being smoke-free as they do about appearing smoke-free. This is likely the same reason that herbal cigarettes, which contain no tobacco, are not addictive, and have health effects incomparable to cigarettes, are also banned under this policy. These activities appear similar to smoking cigarettes, and that is what the UC system is trying to snuff out.

67 comments

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