While the federal government decides how to regulate electronic cigarettes, many university officials across the country are moving ahead with their own rules about e-cigs on campus.
The University South Carolina Beaufort is among them.
The school's current policy bans the use of e-cigarettes in campus building and within 25 feet of them, according to Lindsey Logue, chairwoman of a USCB tobacco-free task force.
E-cigs look like traditional cigarettes but are battery-operated products that heat tobacco-derived nicotine and other chemicals into a vapor that the user inhales, a process called "vaping."
The devices are subject to USCB's tobacco policies because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies them as a tobacco product, Logue said. During its last session, the state legislature also amended the definition of tobacco products, as it pertains to the sale or purchase by minors, to include alternative tobacco products and e-cigarettes.
"We just have to go with what the FDA is saying right now," Logue said. "The whole e-cigs thing is just so very new right now, but they are a tobacco product and our policy covers tobacco, so that's how they fit in."
More than 1,000 campuses nationwide are smoke-free, and many universities have already prohibited e-cigs or are set to ban them in upcoming years.
So little is known about e-cigs that it is difficult to create policies around them, said USCB student government president Devin Mock.
And there seems to be no consensus on their potential health effects or how to regulate them, according to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control spokeswoman Lindsey Evans. Proponents argue that e-cigs help people quit smoking, while opponents "question the overall safety and the possibility of it becoming a gateway to regular tobacco usage," Evans said.
Mock said students have mixed thoughts about their use and rules for them.
"I have heard a few students who use e-cigarettes as an alternative and feel they should be allowed everywhere, since it does not produce smoke," said Mock, who also serves on the task force. "But this initiative is about more than just stopping secondhand smoke, it is about helping to nurture a healthier generation of South Carolinians."
At least 10 schools in South Carolina -- the nation's fifth-largest tobacco-growing state -- already ban smoking or all tobacco products on campus. USC's main Columbia campus will join those schools Jan. 1, when it goes tobacco-free.
USCB's task force is exploring the possibility of following suit. Logue said it's too early to know whether the campus will move in that direction, but the school will engage faculty, staff and students in the coming months before making a decision.
Many other campuses nationwide have made decisions or set policies governing e-cigarettes.
At Idaho State University, Missouri State University and the University of Texas at Austin, for example, officials have updated their smoking policies to ban e-cigs. The products soon will be prohibited at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and all campuses in the University of California system.
Several other campuses, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have not banned e-cigs but discourage their use.
The White House is reviewing a proposal from the FDA about the products; the process could last 90 days or more.
Regulating the cigarette look-alikes as tobacco products would make them subject to the age, marketing and packaging restrictions that apply to traditional cigarettes. It might prohibit sales to minors, ban advertising on television and require warning labels on packaging.
USCB's smoking and tobacco use policy
Under the University of South Carolina Beaufort current policy, e-cigarettes are banned in and around campus buildings. The school is considering becoming a tobacco-free campus, but its current policy prohibits smoking and other use of tobacco products in all campus residence halls, including:
- Entrances, balconies, decks, patios and outside stairways to residence halls and outdoor passageways to entrances, decks, patios and stairways.
- Within 25 feet of a residence hall or an air intake unit/opening.
- Courtyards or other areas.
- Outdoor entry or service lines such as bus stops near a residence hall.
- Outdoor areas where there is fixed seating.
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah. The McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.