Students turn to “vaping” as more college campuses become smoke-free

Mario Delgado, 23, a junior at Florida International University (FIU), smoked a pack of cigarettes every day for more than two years.

As the leading cause of preventable deaths in America, tobacco and smoking bring numerous health consequences, and Delgado knows it. But now he continues to get his nicotine fix through what he sees as a promising solution: electronic cigarettes.

Campuses across the country will host events encouraging students and faculty to quit smoking during the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout Thursday. Though more than 1,400 college campuses have declared themselves “smoke-free,” students have turned to e-cigarettes, an electronic means of getting nicotine vapor without the combustion process and smoke of burning tobacco.

“I know cigarettes are dangerous and I see the effects of that, but I have never heard of anyone dying or anything from e-cigarettes yet,” Delgado said. “I feel like this is safer since it’s made of things that we normally use.”  

A 2014 report by the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation notes that of the 1,477 smoke-free universities, only 291 prohibit the use of e-cigarettes. While both FIU and the University of Miami (UM) are tobacco-free campuses, only UM has banned e-cigarettes.  

The most alarming trend is its growing popularity among college and high school students, according to Wasim Maziak, chair of epidemiology at FIU and a leading expert in nicotine and tobacco research.  He believes the industry is marketing to youth by using different flavors, colors and celebrities to sell the products. He feels this behavior creates a disconnect between those who advocate for the product’s harm-reduction aspects and what the industry plans.

“On the flip side of that is a highly addictive product that we have no evidence that helps smokers quit, but we have evidence that actually it attracts new customers to the nicotine addiction, which can turn later into cigarette smoking,” Maziak said.

E- cigarettes are seen as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes because they do not contain tobacco and eliminate the risk of second-hand smoke by emitting a vapor, according to Mohammad Asad, a certified tobacco treatment specialist and director of the Be Smoke Free program at UM.

Alberto Roque, 23, is the manager at VaporShark, a store that sells e-cigarettes, and said that about half his customers are UM students. He has been “vaping,” using e-cigarettes, at FIU for the last year.

Roque believes the products help people quit smoking. After smoking for nine years, he said he switched to e-cigarettes because it was the “easiest” way to quit.

“This is the future of smoking, period,” Roque said. “Cigarettes are out of here. E-cigarettes give me both addictions, the mental addiction of seeing smoke and the addiction of nicotine.

The industry is not regulated by the FDA, which can lead to impurities and additional unwanted chemicals in the vapor, like formaldehyde, Asad said.

“I would say it’s something unknown, so I would never recommend it until the government approves of it,” said Asad. “There’s no higher priority in public health than ending the tobacco epidemic, but you don’t want this to start a new epidemic of nicotine addiction.”

Despite quality assurances, Maziak said that the nicotine-providing product is not being used in a controlled, medical environment and is concerned that e-cigarettes are based on an industry that markets to youth.

“In essence, manufacturers are … not offering it as a cessation tool or harm reduction tool, they’re marketing to everybody and they’re going to addict a lot of people,” Maziak said. “It’s not a side effect, it’s the main effect because the industry is only about profit.”