Vapin’ in the Classroom: Should E-Cigarette Smoking Be Limited at UNLV?

Despite university rules and a state law, e-cigarettes find a home in lecture halls

Illustration by Jesse J. Sutherland

Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

For a moment, her head is shrouded in fog. Again, she puts the device to her lips and inhales; a red light flickers where the ashes ought to be. She looks down and projects a dense mist toward the floor. The vapor cascades down the sides of her backpack and vanishes.

She is sitting in the front row. She and the professor make eye contact. He says nothing.

No one is surprised by electronic cigarettes now. They’ve become a fact of life, right up there with Bluetooth headsets. As traditional tobacco smoking declines, more and more people are “vaping.” Hundreds of millions of dollars are being made from the product’s 2.5 million users, a number that a leading brand, Blu, projects will quadruple in 2014.

“E-cigs”—with their lower carcinogen levels and lack of actual smoke—are touted for their ability to wean nicotine users off of their combustible counterparts. The nicotine in e-cigs is isolated with other compounds and flavorings, many of which are FDA approved. Many smokers have successfully made the permanent switch, benefiting their health and reducing the risk to those around them.

The aforementioned UNLV student had been a chronic smoker for seven years until converting to the electronic variety. “I always sit in the front row when I use these,” she says, “and the professors have not said anything about it. I would be more than willing not to use it in class if somebody asked me to stop. But no one has.”

That doesn’t mean everyone is OK with it. “People smoke [e-cigarettes] outside the designated areas, and no one enforces the rules,” says student Karina Luera. “It’s a distraction. And it bothers me that I can’t escape them.”

A popular Facebook page, UNLV Memes, has a photo of the character Scumbag Steve—a composite figure who represents the traits students love to hate—with the caption “Smokes e-cigarette in class.” Many of the comments below the photo say vaping is a classroom distraction; others defend it because of its reduced harmful side effects.

In October, UNLV issued the following statement on its website: “In compliance with the UNLV risk management statement regarding the use of e-cigarettes, effective immediately, e-cigarettes may not be utilized in the Student Union facility or within 20 feet of any entrance.” The new ruling even made the local TV news. But for now, it does not cover use in other high-density areas, such as the library or classrooms.

That, however, is where things get strange.

UNLV’s Office of Risk Management issued this statement in September … of 2012: “E-cigarettes are still considered a tobacco product containing nicotine and several other chemicals. The Nevada Clean Indoor Act, NRS 202.2483, states that smoking tobacco in any form is prohibited within indoor places of employment. Furthermore, please note that smoking of any kind, including the use of e-cigarettes, is not permitted within 25 feet of building entrances or air-intake handlers.”

So the ban on indoor use across the entire campus has been in place for more than a year, yet somehow it got so thoroughly lost in the shuffle that re-announcing it for one building was newsworthy. As it turns out, those who use electronic cigarettes in the library and classrooms are breaking not only UNLV policy, but also Nevada law.

It remains to be seen whether anyone has the will to tell them to quit.