The increasing popularity and uncertain health hazards of e-cigarettes have prompted many of Tucson’s school districts to ban the products from school and district campuses.
More than half of area districts have revised existing policies to include electronic cigarettes, while other districts automatically treat e-cigarettes like regular tobacco products when an incident arises with a student or employee.
Although the popularity of e-cigarettes has exploded within the last three years, the safety of electronic “vaping” hasn’t been determined because researchers are still studying its effects on people.
Children can buy nicotine-free electronic cigarettes, but it’s hard to tell which devices contain nicotine and which ones don’t.
That can cause confusion for teachers and school administrators looking to enforce district policies.
District governing boards are not outlawing the devices because of increased student use, but rather as a way to keep up with current trends and promote responsible behavior.
“If we don’t ban them, then it just becomes confusing in determining if it was a real cigarette or an e-cigarette,” said Calvin Baker, Vail School District superintendent. “This is a proactive decision and not a reactive decision.”
Vail’s Governing Board has discussed the issue in previous meetings and could vote to ban the devices next week at its upcoming board meeting.
The Tucson Unified School District became one of the latest districts to ban e-cigarettes, when the district Governing Board voted last month to prohibit students, staff members and visitors from using the devices on district grounds.
Amphitheater Public Schools added e-cigarettes to the list of banned items in June, while the Marana and Catalina Foothills unified school districts both banned the devices in May 2012.
Other districts, such as Sahuarita, treat e-cigarettes like regular cigarettes, although the district is considering adding verbiage to specifically address use of the devices, Sahuarita Superintendent Manuel Valenzuela said.
Sahuarita wants to specifically address the wording so district officials can prevent confusion among parents and students, Valenzuela said.
“I think it’s important to be clear in our communication that these relatively new items do fit in the category of tobacco or regular cigarettes and are not acceptable,” he said.
In most districts, students who use tobacco products can face suspension or expulsion if there’s evidence of repeated use.
Employees who smoke on school property can receive discipline ranging from a letter of reprimand to suspension without pay.
A recent study determined the vapors from e-cigarettes are not harmful because there are no carcinogens, said Stephen Michael, director of the Arizona Smokers Helpline.
Other early studies have shown the devices are not worse than tobacco but can have the same addictive effect for someone who has never smoked, Michael said.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered about e-cigarettes, which are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and have varying levels of nicotine. The Arizona Smokers Helpline does not recommend the devices as a smoking-cessation technique.
“We have people calling us to get off of e-cigarettes,” Michael said. “All it takes care of is the carcinogens, but it still doesn’t deal with the behavioral addictions.”