Status of vaping in a smoke-free campus

Denise Emerson

The alleyways between UT buildings are grave sites for cigarette butts, but invisible vapor from e-cigarettes hangs in the air as well. 

UT has been a smoke-free campus since 2012. Many students are unaware the policy includes e-cigarettes such as JUULs, which enables a campus culture more tolerant of vaping, theater education sophomore Eric Ramirez said. The University of Texas at Austin Executive Summary, a health survey of UT students, shows a decrease in cigarette use and an increase in e-cigarette use in students from 2015 to 2017.

“I understood (the policy) as tobacco-free, so in my mind the JUUL was allowed,” Ramirez said. “I hit my JUUL in front of my professors.”

For Ramirez and accounting sophomore Robert Rota, the policy had minimal impact on their nicotine dependencies. 

“Cigarettes (are) proven to f— up your lungs and yellow your teeth,” Ramirez said. “People just feel safer with vape, so much so people are posting videos of them doing tricks and then getting thousands of retweets.”

Matthew Olson, the alcohol and other drug counseling program coordinator at the Counseling and Mental Health Center, said cigarette use has a more negative stigma today compared to past decades.

“A lot of the myths around cigarette use have been dispelled widely to the point where not many people smoking cigarettes are like, ‘There’s nothing harmful about this,’” Olson said. “They have an awareness that it’s unhealthy.”

Olson said research on e-cigarettes needs to catch up to the fast-growing popularity of vaping over cigarettes.

“If all we’ve done is unintentionally created this void that’s being filled through e-cigarettes, then you’re like, ‘What do we do now?’” Olson said.

Students may be more inclined to call out a smoker on campus, Olson said, because it is more noticeable and judged than vaping. 

“A kid in my management class was charging his JUUL on his computer right in front of the teacher,” Rota said.

Rota said he is in the process of quitting vaping. He gave away his JUUL and said he now feels temptation when at parties or after meals.

“It’s way too much money,” Rota said. “It can be up to 20 bucks a pack for the JUUL. You can go through a pod a day or more. (It’s) five bucks a day just for something stupid like that.”

One 5-percent-strength JUULpod has the nicotine equivalence of a pack of cigarettes.

“I smoke every time I’m about to study,” Ramirez said. “It keeps me focused — keeps me going. I can’t do without it.”

State lawmakers recently filed a bill to raise the legal purchase and consumption age for nicotine products from 18 to 21.

Olson said raising the age requirement can facilitate the formation of a black market for nicotine products, and brain development at age 18 versus age 21 doesn’t differ greatly. 

“If you were saying the legal age right now is 13 and we’re going to change that to 23, I could more safely assume that (would be beneficial), because your brain typically stops developing in your mid 20s,” Olson said.

Whether vaping or smoking tobacco, the common denominator is nicotine, Olson said.

“A dependency on any substance — it could be caffeine (or) it could be heroin — is inherently unhealthy,” Olson said.