Adler: For tobacco-free policy, don’t include campus ban on electronic cigarettes

To the editor,

On Monday, the Faculty Senate is scheduled to consider a proposal to make the university a “tobacco-free” campus. While much of the proposal is eminently reasonable, the policy as drafted has a major problem, one that could actually undermine the university’s stated goals of reducing smoking and improving the health of the Case Western Reserve University community. If this policy is to be adopted, it needs to be revised.

The central component of the proposal is a prohibition on smoking anywhere on campus. If adopted, we can finally say goodbye to the clouds of smoke around designated smoking areas and the trail of cigarette butts that line the paths to classroom buildings. Good riddance.

Yet the policy goes beyond eliminating smoking on campus to embrace all designated tobacco products, including some that are not tobacco at all, such as electronic cigarettes (aka “e-cigs”). Therein lies the problem. The primary justifications for a smoking ban are the well-documented health consequences of smoking and the effects on other people. Smoking-related illness remains a leading cause of death in this country, and smokers affect those around them. Eliminating smoking on campus will improve the health of the CWRU community and make the campus more pleasant for all.

Banning e-cigs from campus, however, does none of those things and could actually make things worse. E-cigs are quite different from traditional tobacco products. For starters, they don’t contain tobacco. With e-cigs, nothing is burning and there is no smoke. Instead, e-cigs heat a fluid to create a vapor (hence the term “vaping”). Most e-cigs contain nicotine—which is part of their appeal—but low-nicotine and nicotine-free vaping fluids are also available.

Because e-cigs don’t involve combustion, most of the substances that make cigarettes so dangerous and unhealthy are absent. There’s also no side-stream smoke, and no cigarette butts. Some e-cigs are designed to look and feel somewhat like cigarettes. Others—so-called vaping pens—do not. In either case, e-cigs are a way for smokers to feed their habit with much less risk to themselves and others.

E-cigs are not risk-free, and remain the subject of intense study, but there is broad agreement among public health researchers that they are far less harmful than traditional cigarettes. A recent review of all available scientific and medical evidence on e-cigs conducted by England’s government health agency concluded that e-cigs are much safer than cigarettes because “most of the chemicals causing smoking-related disease are absent and the chemicals which are present pose limited danger.”

What about effects on others? The Public Health UK report found that e-cigs “release negligible levels of nicotine into ambient air with no identified health risks to bystanders.” Smoking bans can be justified on the abundant evidence that smokers affect those around them. There is, as yet, no such evidence to justify banning e-cigs from campus.

For a leading research university like CWRU, the absence of scientific evidence of any harm should be enough to reject a policy that would restrict what adults may do on campus, but there are even better reasons not to prohibit e-cigs from campus. In economic terms, e-cigs are generally used a substitute for traditional cigarettes. This means that restrictions on e-cigs can have the predictable effect of increasing smoking rates (which is one reason why tobacco companies push for greater e-cig regulation). So by treating e-cigs like tobacco products, CWRU could discourage smokers from switching to a less dangerous alternative, undermining the university’s goal of helping smokers quit.

Most e-cig users are current or former smokers, and many use e-cigs to reduce their cigarette consumption or as an aid in quitting. This is important because it is notoriously difficult to quit smoking. (Just ask a former smoker.) Some smokers find nicotine gums or patches helpful in quitting, but many more do not. For some, e-cigs are the answer. There is significant evidence that e-cigs can help smokers quit, and they may be as—if not more—effective than alternative smoking cessation methods (again, at least for some smokers).

By treating e-cigs like traditional cigarettes (while exempting other nicotine products), the proposed tobacco-free policy could have the perverse effect of making it harder for smokers to quit. That is the last thing the university should do.

The proposed tobacco-free policy is well-intentioned. We all want to be part of a healthier campus community. Yet applying a campus-wide ban to e-cigs is unjustified, and could actually undermine the goals of the tobacco-free policy. It is one thing to prohibit e-cigs from classroom buildings and the like, but prohibiting them from campus completely, indoors and out, goes too far. Such a prohibition is not an evidence-based policy, and could hurt members of our community that we should be trying to help.

Jonathan H. Adler
Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law
Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at the School of Law.

In 2014, Professor Adler co-authored a white paper on the political economy of e-cigarette regulation commissioned by NJOY, an e-cigarette manufacturer. Professor Adler has not maintained any relationship with NJOY since and the opinions in his piece are his alone.