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Vaping vanities

In April 2018, Duke declared a new policy to become a fully smoke-free campus by the year 2020. This decision, framed as the natural progression of the Duke Healthy Campus Initiative, explicitly prohibits “combustible tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos, and hookahs.” Notably, this ban does not prohibit e-cigarettes or vaping devices, which are cited as tools to help smokers quit smoking.

This policy appears to be as unassailable as they come, especially when compared to some of the administration’s recent proposals. Since 1964, when the U.S Surgeon General released its famous report condemning cigarettes as being inherently carcinogenic, smoking has rightfully been vilified as a public health hazard. National anti-smoking campaigns have caused smoking rates to drop considerably from their peak in 1963, when nearly half of all adult Americans were active smokers. Correspondingly, a variety of tools have sprung up to help smokers quit their habit. Among them are Juuls, a popular e-cigarette brand that has taken over half of the e-cigarette market since its introduction in 2015. Its meteoric rise is even reflected by its verbification, joining the hallowed millennial company of “Google” and “Netflix.” 

Despite Juul’s stated purpose as a smoking cessation tool, its marketing practices have drawn intense scrutiny for their appeal to youths. Amidst a troubling rise in e-cigarette usage in adolescents, Juul’s flashy advertisements and variety of flavors have drawn the attention of the FDA. Current research has consistently concluded that Juuls are harmful to adolescent development and ironically—considering its original function as a weaning tool—lead to increased cigarette use in later life. Under such pressure, Juul declared on Tuesday that it would stop selling its flavored nicotine pods in stores and cease its social media promotions. 

Nowhere is this Juul epidemic seemingly more apparent than right here at Duke. Juuls are everywhere. Stuffed into a silicon card holder behind a Duke Card. Affably passed around at parties between rounds of beer pong. Even pulled out for a quick puff in LL2 of Perkins. Given that Juuls have been shown to be an unhealthy gateway to further nicotine addiction, Duke’s choice not to include e-cigarettes in its smoke-free policy is questionable at best. If this policy is motivated by the desire to promote healthy living, the intention is undermined by the exception being made for e-cigarettes. Nicotine addiction is okay, as long as it comes furnished in a sleek metallic finish, befitting the bourgeois sensibilities of generation Z Duke students. 

More insidiously, this policy further institutionalizes the implicit socioeconomic gap on this campus. A pack of cigarettes retails for around $5.45, whereas the Juul starter kit alone is $50, a high start-up cost to many working class Americans. Low-income people are significantly more likely to smoke cigarettes, and on this campus, those lighting up tend to be workers and graduate students. In contrast, those Juuling tend to be the undergraduate students who can afford the technology. Under the guise of the easy cigarette scapegoat, Duke has institutionalized nicotine addiction as a privilege of the wealthy. It makes it impermissible to exist as a proverbial housekeeper on her smoke break. But it explicitly makes permissible a Duke student Juuling away at a pregame in Krzyzewskiville. Intentional or not, this policy signals to students and workers alike that addiction is a luxury when rich but a crime when poor. This decision brings to mind the federal cocaine laws passed in 1986, which disproportionately punished low income users. 

The goal of a smoke-free campus is an admirable one, certainly one that Duke ought to pursue considering the adverse public health risks of tobacco. But in doing so, Duke needs to be more mindful of the implicit class divisions that can cause disproportionate impact. Duke can ban e-cigarettes and evenly enforce an anti-nicotine policy across the board instead of merely banning physical tobacco products. If the concern is depriving smokers of their means of quitting, Duke can fund other tools so that everyone can enjoy a healthier lifestyle—maybe subsidize free nicotine patches or nicotine gum. The failure to make these policy amendments would otherwise suggest that Duke’s policies do not have the interests of its workers and low income community members at heart. 

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