Maryland colleges and universities have added vaping to campus smoking bans, providing resources to help students stop vaping or to encourage them not to start up the habit at all.
But the rapid rise of the vaping industry has left universities with little data and even less research on just how prevalent vaping is and the best way to address it.
Administrators say they know one thing: Electronic cigarettes are harmful and students should be discouraged from using them.
“I thought when this first came out, ‘Oh my, here we go.’ Here is a creative yet deceitful way of getting young people hooked,” said Donald Swogger, director of the Substance Abuse Facts and Education (S.A.F.E.) office at Frostburg State University. “It’s still my concern that this is going to lead to people going back to smoking cigarettes.”
While electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices have been available for about a decade, their growth has accelerated over the past couple of years, particularly among teenage users.
A quarter of high school seniors surveyed this year said they had vaped in the last 30 days, up from 20% last year and 11% two years ago, according to a survey conducted by the University of Michigan.
As those 12th grade vapers move on to college, they often continue the habit in their new environment. But colleges are finding it difficult to learn how pervasive the issue really is on their campuses.
Most campus surveys do not single out vaping when they ask students about their habits, and students do not consider vaping to be smoking.
Cigarette smoking rates have been declining among teenagers for decades. Just 6% of seniors said they smoked cigarettes in the University of Michigan survey, down from 8%.
“I think kids are starting (vaping) at pretty young ages. I don’t know if they think of it as necessarily rebelling or as a vice,” said Joanna Cohen, a professor in Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health and part of the school’s Institute for Global Tobacco Control. “I don’t know that they think of it as a harmful product.”
Few schools have solid data about their students’ e-cigarette use. Most Maryland universities said their student health centers believed vaping was prevalent on campus but did not have numbers.
Frostburg State University, Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland, Baltimore County, did have information from their participation in the National College Health Assessment. Johns Hopkins participated in 2018 and Frostburg State and UMBC participated in 2019.
At Johns Hopkins and UMBC, 12% of students said they had vaped in the last 30 days. At Frostburg State the number was 13%.
Despite knowing that it is prevalent, student health administrators rarely see students vaping.
“We just don’t see vaping,” Frostburg’s Swogger said. “We’re not seeing vaping on campus, so obviously students are off campus and they are using it.”
Most schools believe vaping is covered under campus smoking and tobacco policies, which would at least prohibit vaping inside of buildings.
Sometimes these policies mean that smoking and vaping are prohibited across campus, other times it means they are prohibited within a certain distance of buildings.
Loyola University Maryland instituted its smoking policy this summer and chose to ban vaping alongside cigarettes.
“We decided that because we are looking at it, because that’s our purpose, that we were going to have it smoke-free,” said Stephanie Regenold, the university’s director of student health and education services.
Vaping’s growth has been particularly fueled by Juul, the electronic cigarette that looks like a USB flash drive and controls about three-quarters of the market. Juul, along with other e-cigarette manufacturers, has been accused of marketing the product to children through flavored nicotine pods like mango and cotton candy.
Juul has denied those claims and says it welcomes regulation and efforts to ensure that teenagers cannot buy vaping devices or nicotine pods.
Vaping’s growing popularity can be at least partially attributed to social media, especially platforms popular among teenagers like Instagram and Tik Tok. Videos with the #juulgang have received nearly 240 million views on Tik Tok.
Alongside vaping’s growing popularity, concerns have also grown. Because of a recent spike in vaping-related lung illnesses, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about using the vaping devices.
Michigan and New York have taken steps to ban flavored nicotine. President Donald Trump has floated the idea of a similar ban. Walmart announced Friday that it would stop selling electronic cigarettes.
In Maryland, 20 cases of vaping-related lung illness have been reported by the state Department of Health as of Sept. 17.
Cohen said the only people who should be using the products are cigarette smokers trying to smoke.
Universities play a role in encouraging students to stop vaping and providing aid to those who decide to stop.
Most colleges either have programs to discourage vaping or are considering initiatives to educate students about the harm of vaping.
At Salisbury University, which has been a smoke-free campus since 2010, posters inform students about the harms of e-cigarettes.
The university health center asks student visitors if they vape, then discusses why it is not good for them or their lungs, a university spokesman said.
Frostburg State plans to distribute posters, alongside videos, that would support students who do not vape.
The university also asks parents of freshmen to address vaping with their children and encourages faculty to address the issue as part of their regular curriculum.
When there are students who want to stop, universities provide or direct them to resources that can help them stop. For the most part these are the same as other nicotine cessation programs.
But there is limited research available about the best way to address nicotine addiction developed through vaping.
“There’s very little research on interventions that will help specifically with this,” Cohen said. “We can take a lot of lessons from cigarette cessation. You could replace the nicotine with a less harmful form.”