WASHINGTON 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.
Several universities already have prohibited e-cigs or are set to ban them in upcoming years.
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.
Washington State University has four campuses, and the system updated its policy in September to ban e-cigs on all of them, according to the News and University Communications Office.
The products soon will be prohibited at all campuses in the University of California system.
Several other campuses permit the products, though they might follow the lead of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and discourage their use.
Western Washington University, which allows smoking in some areas on campus, is updating its policy to include e-cigarettes.
That means that smoking, including of e-cigarettes, will be banned inside all WWU buildings including residence halls and within 25 feet of building entrances, exits and windows. Smoking is allowed in designated areas outside.
Such inconsistency among university policies reflects a lack of consensus among scientists and public health experts as to what exactly e-cigs are, what their long-term impact on health may be and how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should regulate them.
The products are relatively new, but the science about them has been developing, said Karen Williams, the assistant director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. I think its really just a matter of time as everyone learns about the products before all universities take the step to prohibit them on campus.
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.
In 2010, the FDA determined that certain e-cigs were unapproved pharmaceutical products and detained or refused imports from some manufacturers. One manufacturer fought back, and a federal court held that e-cigs arent pharmaceutical products but that the FDA could regulate them as tobacco products.
It seems pretty clear that the FDA will regulate electronic cigarettes like tobacco products, said Theodore L. Wagener, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center whos researching the products.
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 packag-ing.
The White House is reviewing a proposal from the FDA; the process might last 90 days or more. Meanwhile, the debate about the potential benefits and risks of e-cigs has escalated.
Advocates promote the products as healthier alternatives to cigarettes that give users their nicotine fixes without the toxins and car-cinogens generated by burning tobacco. Some advocates also say e-cigs might help smokers quit.
But critics say e-cigs may increase nicotine addiction and tobacco use among young people. They also point out that the FDA says not enough research has been done for consumers to know whether e-cigs are safe or harmful.
Despite those unknowns, e-cigs are gaining popularity among young adults.
The American Journal of Public Health said last year that 53 percent of young adults whod heard of e-cigs thought they were less harmful than traditional cigarettes; almost 45 percent thought e-cigs could help them quit smoking. Another study found that 50 percent of young adults would try e-cigs if friends offered them one.
Stanton Glantz, the director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, said the hype surrounding e-cigs as cessation devices might prompt students who were barred from smoking to start vaping.
Theres a lot of anecdotal evidence people talking about how electronic cigarettes helped them stop smoking, Glantz said. There are even a few studies that seem to indicate they could be cessation devices. But theres no conclusive, credible scientific evidence to prove they are.
Glantz said he was concerned about data that showed that people who used e-cigs werent switching from traditional cigarettes but rather using both.
If someone made a 100 percent switch, Wagener said, most experts agree that e-cigs would be less harmful to the individual than traditional cigarettes.
I explain it like someone deciding to go from eating a dozen doughnuts every day to just having one doughnut hole a day, he said. Its much better for someone to use electronic cigarettes than normal cigarettes.
Bellingham Herald reporter Kie Relyea contributed to this story.