Last week, James Davis, the director of the Duke Smoking Cessation Program, proposed that Duke extend its soon-to-be implemented “smoking ban” to include electronic cigarettes. In its present condition, the smoke-free campus initiative will only prohibit combustible tobacco products, such as cigars and cigarettes, and does not regulate the use of e-cigarettes.
As some readers of this publication might remember, I am also an opponent of Duke’s general smoking ban, and I think some of the arguments are transferable to this issue. The science and policy surrounding e-cigarettes is vast and complex, but I think that Duke should take a step back before engaging in such drastic policy that may have broader unintended consequences.
It is worth mentioning that Dr. Davis’ suggestions strongly echo the direction of national policy. Just last Friday, President Trump suggested that the United States may move to raise the minimum age to purchase vaping products to 21. The administration is also moving to prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarette products. This, of course, lags behind more proscriptive legislation in other countries, which have included full scale vaping bans.
Opponents of vaping point to several arguments to bolster their case. One of the most commonly cited arguments against e-cigarette use concerns the addictive qualities of nicotine, and how it affects non-smokers who may be drawn to seemingly harmless e-cigarettes and quickly find themselves hooked on the substance.
Dr. Davis also mentioned that, given how new the vaping phenomenon is to America, there is little in the way of long-term evidence that could possibly provide conclusive information relating to the health effects of e-cigarette usage. While e-cigarette products have been on the market in the United States since 2007, it wasn’t until Juul (which now holds 72% of the e-cigarette market) hit the shelves a few years ago that they became widespread.
The recent wave of vaping-related illnesses has struck fear into the hearts of regulators and consumers alike. Dr. Davis points to the uptick in “Lung Injury Syndrome” to justify a campus-wide ban on e-cigarettes. I am not going to deny that there are several health hazards associated with vaping, and Dr. Davis documents many of these. However, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to express some skepticism at a proposal as radical as a full-scale prohibition on the usage of e-cigarettes. It is worth referring back to a recent letter to The Chronicle by a group called the Concerned Tobacco Addiction Treatment and Policy Experts, which includes several physicians employed by Duke University.
Their understanding of the literature reinforces the consensus that vaping is far less dangerous than smoking cigarettes, as “studies of e-cigarette users have shown that they take in far less toxins than cigarette smokers." As the smoking ban inches closer, students and employees of Duke that are addicted to nicotine may be forced to find other alternatives, such as nicotine replacement therapy, which is, as these experts discuss, about half as effective as e-cigarettes in helping smokers quit their habits.
Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that much of the recent ruckus surrounding vaping-related illness can be traced back to vitamin E acetate, which is used to treat cannabis extracts for vapes, not the legal, nicotine vapes that would also be subject to this ban. In fact, 86 percent of patients reported consuming cannabis through their vapes, and it would not be surprising if the actual percentage was higher than this.
There is a strong argument that Duke should minimize its interference in the freedom of its students and employees to make choices related to their personal health. The members of the Duke community that will be affected by this ban are adults with the autonomy and intelligence to make decisions about themselves consistent with their own long-term interests. The bureaucratization of the lifestyle choices of its students should concern everyone, as it is a logic that can be employed to exercise further and more restrictive policies against the student body.
Nikhil Sridhar is a Trinity senior. His column, “laissez faire et laissez passer,” runs on alternate Mondays.
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