Like other organizations, universities haven’t quite decided how to deal with the emergence of electronic cigarettes. Should they allow people to “vape” as they please while the public health risks are still under debate?
As of Oct. 1, according to the organization Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, 291 U.S. colleges and universities have prohibited the use of e-cigarettes anywhere on their campuses. Several Canadian universities, among them Université de Montréal, Université de Sherbrooke, University of New Brunswick and Thompson Rivers University, place e-cigarettes in the same category as regular cigarettes – i.e., they are allowed only in designated smoking areas and are generally banned from all indoor spaces. The majority of institutions, however, appear to be waiting for public health authorities to establish official guidelines.
“It’s a phenomenon that first hit our campus last spring, and for now, we’re tolerating it,” said Jenny Desrochers, spokesperson for Université du Québec à Montréal. “So far, it hasn’t been an issue. We haven’t had any complaints, and the people who use electronic cigarettes tend to do so off university grounds.” UQAM is monitoring the situation and will adjust its approach should amendments be made to the province’s Tobacco Act.
It’s the same story at Concordia University. “We’re currently weighing our options, and we’re keeping an eye on how other institutions are approaching the situation,” media relations director Chris Mota explained. “It is, however, prohibited to use electronic cigarettes in student residences.”
U de Montréal, on the other hand, did receive complaints. According to a press release, “Since classes resumed this fall, the use of e-cigarettes has greatly expanded inside campus buildings, and some people have complained.” As of Nov. 1, e-cigarettes are banned in all buildings and within nine metres of exits.
After receiving several complaints, UNB decided on June 3 to include e-cigarettes in its policy on smoking. “But if Health Canada issues guidelines or recommendations regarding the risks associated with electronic cigarettes, we will re-evaluate the situation,” UNB spokesperson Natasha Ashfield noted.
Université de Sherbrooke made a similar decision on June 16, based on “the warning issued by Quebec’s public health director, who recommended that electronic cigarettes not be tolerated in places targeted by the Tobacco Act,” said media relations consultant Isabelle Huard in an email.
David Sweanor, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law and an expert on the issues surrounding smoking and public health, says that for now, universities would be best advised to wait before taking action. “It’s all a lot more complicated than it seems, and more scientific evidence is needed before going ahead with a ban on electronic cigarettes.”
With all due respect, I disagree with Professor Sewanor’s take on the situation. Isn’t it more ethical to first ascertain that a product is safe before allowing it than to allow something first until somebody proves it is hazardous? Shouldn’t prudent avoidance prevail or is it better to treat the public as guinea pigs?