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‘We can make our own decisions’: Mixed feelings as students grapple with Duke’s vape ban

Editor's Note: This story was updated Feb. 20 at 5:10 p.m. with information about a DSG survey conducted about students' opinions on an e-cigarette ban.

Vaping was added to Duke’s impending ban on smoking—and students have mixed feelings on the policy.

The University announced the addition earlier this month. James Davis, medical director of the Duke Center for Smoking Cessation, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that “concerning findings” that emerged over the last two years ultimately motivated the addition of e-cigarettes to the original ban released in April 2018. 

Principal among these findings, Davis wrote, was the emergence of a newly identified disease known as “e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury,”or EVALI. Other factors that Duke experts considered included the rapid increase in e-cigarette use among youth and evidence that e-cigarette companies, such as JUUL, targeted young people, he noted. 

As of Feb. 4, the Center for Disease Control had reported 2,758 cases of EVALI from all 50 states, including 64 deaths. 

Davis explained that Duke has been developing new treatment pathways over the last two years to help individuals to transition away from cigarettes and e-cigarettes. 

“The great majority of behavior change around tobacco use is expected to occur within 6 months of policy implementation,” he wrote.

Since the policy change was announced, Duke students have come out both in support and in opposition. 

Davis first presented his proposed changes to the ban to the DSG Senate last November. After his presentation, Senator Dina Qiryaqoz, a sophomore, began to work on a resolution to show there was student support for the ban. “I was supportive of their proposal and wanted to help out,” she wrote in an email. 

Qiryaqoz sent out a survey Jan. 27 asking students for their opinions on extending the ban on combustible tobacco to include e-cigarettes as well. She included a link in the weekly DSG email blast and posted in the four class-specific Facebook groups.

Students did not have to provide their name or any other identifying information, and the survey asked one question: 

“Considering there will be fair implementation, adequate and free resource provision to help individuals quit smoking, and that the ban would be non-punitive (not aimed at punishing students), are you in support of banning e-cigarettes on campus in addition to the original smoke ban?”

Students could respond “yes—I support banning e-cigarettes on campus” or “no—I do not support banning e-cigarettes on campus,” and there was an optional section where respondents could elaborate on their answer to the question. 

Qiryaqoz received a total of 373 responses. A majority of students (67%) supported the proposal to extend the ban, while 123 students (33%) opposed the extension. 

Sophomore Ari Drabu started smoking cigarettes when he was 15. Coming to Duke from India, where he said it’s more common for teens to start smoking before high school, was a massive transition. 

“Everyone here looks down upon people who smoke cigarettes,” he said of the United States.

Drabu said he had to adapt not only to more stringent smoking laws, but also to scrutiny and stigma that he says is distinctly American.

“You wouldn't find this [stigma] anywhere else in the world,” he said.

E-cigarettes weren’t widely available in India, Drabu explained, so when he discovered them in America, he was excited to try an alternative to tobacco-based cigarettes. 

“We were actually using these vapes for their intended purpose, which is to quit tobacco,” Drabu said, referring to himself and his friends. “We were trying to take a step toward a healthy lifestyle, and that step was taken away from us with this policy.”

He explained that smoking cigarettes was looked down upon more than using e-cigarettes. People have given him looks when he’s smoked cigarettes in public, and some have even approached and asked him to put it out. He said he respects other people’s choices, but now with the ban, he feels like they’ll have an unwarranted authority over him.

“It makes me feel like I’m some sort of criminal,” he said.

Drabu added that the ban is at odds with Duke’s efforts to expand its international presence. He believes Duke is just now making its mark on the international community with the founding of Duke Kunshan University. But the ban, which disproportionately harms international students he says, undercuts that mission.

“It just seems kind of like a double standard to me,” he said.

When asked if he had considered quitting, he said no. “I think I'm just going to continue doing what I'm doing until someone catches me.”

Junior Jannis Stoeter, a Duke Student Government senator, argued that instead of completely banning non-combustible tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes, Duke should’ve considered other options to de-incentivize their use on campus.

Stoeter also questioned how Duke plans to regulate tobacco use on campus. 

Davis, who spearheaded the initiative, wrote that enforcement will follow “existing enforcement pathways for any policy violation.” He also noted that the process will emphasize the importance of seeking treatment. 

“Each case will be managed individually,” he wrote.

He did not explain the details of what an intervention would look like should a student get caught using one of the prohibited products.

In terms of treatment options, the Duke Smoking Cessation Program will provide treatment to any employee or student who wants to quit using tobacco products. Davis wrote that FDA-approved nicotine replacement options, such as nicotine patches, gum and lozenges, are currently available through employee health and student health.

Some students see the ban as a public health triumph for the Duke community. 

“I take a look at all these tobacco products and I see people being robbed not only of money, but have a well-lived life,” first-year Alex Leo-Guerra, a staff writer for Recess, said. 

Since Leo-Guerra has seen the negative impact of nicotine addiction on his own family members, he explained that it’s important to curb the use of nicotine products. He also emphasized that he doesn’t want to see his fellow students lose their ability to function at full capacity because of a nicotine dependence.

First-year Alex Hoffman noted that the ban on e-cigarettes takes an ethical stand against underage tobacco use, and it gives Duke an opportunity to be a leader in a smoke-free initiative. 

“With e-cigs and vapes already having proliferated high schools and colleges nationwide, the ban is the least Duke can do,” he said.

Others don’t think a blanket ban is the right solution, with some questioning its impact on personal liberties.

First-year Morgan McCloud questioned the impact of the ban on personal freedoms, explaining that students are adults and “can make [their] own decisions.”

She mentioned that people can be told to stop smoking, but the decision to stop is eventually a personal choice. 

“You just fall into a loop of ‘What are they going to do next? What are they going to take away next?’” she said.

First-year Zella Hanson, a DSG senator, said she thinks the decision to vape or not should be left to individual discretion and that she doesn’t judge people either way. On the other hand, she acknowledges that vaping has become a pop culture phenomenon and a lot of students do it to fit in—not for smoking cessation.

“I’m definitely not looking down on my peers who choose to do this, and that they're doing it for clout or anything,” she said.

Stoeter, Hanson and McCloud all pointed out that Duke doesn’t ban alcohol—another substance that has the potential to harm student health. 

“Duke is a school where a lot of students drink precariously Wednesday through Saturday,” Hanson said, “And that is so much more harmful than vaping.”

Stoeter plans to introduce a resolution in the DSG Senate. He said it will not take a stance on the merit of the ban, but instead will focus on procedural questions, including  why the University chose a full ban as its first action.

When asked if they thought students would abide by the ban, Leo-Guerra, McCloud and Griffin all had the same answer: “No.” 

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