Long Island school districts are cracking down on electronic cigarettes, adding specific campus bans on the devices to their anti-tobacco policies.
The percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The Food and Drug Administration bars the sale of e-cigarettes to those under age 18.
State law prohibits smoking on school grounds, and many Island districts, such as Jericho, are applying their current anti-tobacco regulations to e-cigarettes. But others are taking the extra step of specifically banning the devices -- both those that have nicotine and those that are nicotine-free.
Lynbrook schools' athletic and physical education director Tom Graham, who sits on the Nassau County Heroin Task Force, said officials in his district were spurred to action, in part, because research shows people have manipulated e-cigarettes to mask marijuana use.
"So that was our concern, that we could have a student, adult, anybody, and they could come in and be smoking an e-cigarette on our school grounds, and they can be getting high," he said, adding he expects other Island districts to institute similar bans.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that provide doses of nicotine and other additives to the user in an aerosol, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There are flavored varieties and nicotine-free inhalers.
The typical e-cigarette contains an atomizer that sets off a vapor of propylene glycol, the key liquid ingredient. Propylene glycol is generally considered safe, but experts say the compound and others in e-cigarettes have not been fully studied for safety.
Pitched as safer option
E-cigarettes have been marketed as a way to lessen or stop smoking conventional cigarettes. Because they do not contain the tar of traditional cigarettes, they also have been said to be less dangerous. The FDA currently regulates only those that are marketed for therapeutic purposes.
Thomas Kiklas, co-founder of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, based in Alpharetta, Ga., said the group supports restrictions on the devices' use by minors, but opposes limits on adults' use.
"We understand where legislative bodies are searching for a path of regulation, and our suggestion is the prohibition on the sales and marketing to minors," Kiklas said.
However, "for a teacher who is a smoker, to say you can't use it on school grounds is irresponsible," Kiklas said.
He described e-cigarettes as "a transitionary product" that gives smokers an alternative to traditional cigarettes, and said secondhand e-cigarette vapor is vastly less harmful than tobacco cigarettes.
Kiklas, noting that people have come up with a variety of ways to use marijuana, objected strongly to criticism of e-cigarettes stemming from alteration of the devices. Rather, he said, e-cigarettes should be credited with helping millions of people make the transition away from conventional cigarettes.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, based in Washington, D.C., has warned of the potential dangers of e-cigarettes, saying health risks from their use are not yet known. Synthetic cigarettes could entice young people to smoke traditional cigarettes, the society said.
"Behavior that simulates smoking, whether it's tobacco smoke or vapor, has the same effect -- normalizing smoking," said Michele Bonan, regional director of advocacy for the network.
New York City restricted electronic cigarette use in December, adding the devices to the city's ban on smoking in restaurants, bars, parks and other public places.
The CDC's finding that e-cigarette use among young people nationally is rising comes as use of traditional tobacco among young people in New York State has been declining.
Use by high schoolers
The percentage of high school students who reported ever using an e-cigarette rose from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012, the most recent data available, the agency's National Youth Tobacco Survey found. More than 1.78 million middle and high school students nationwide had tried e-cigarettes in 2012, according to the survey.
In New York, the state Department of Health said smoking rates among high school students in 2012 had fallen to 11.9 percent, the lowest since health officials began keeping track in 1997.
The state Health Department did not have current figures on electronic cigarette use.
Islip is another school district that soon is to consider adding a specific ban on e-cigarettes to its prohibitions against smoking. The current smoking prohibition applies to staff and students, and covers school buildings and all school grounds.
"We wanted to be more specific," Superintendent Susan A. Schnebel said. The issue will go to the policy committee for the Board of Education and could come up for a vote in coming weeks.
Islip high school and middle school students, who are part of a superintendent's roundtable that advises school officials on policy matters, support the added restriction.
"Their interpretation is that 'Smoking is smoking, whether natural or synthetic' and it would be disruptive in the school," Schnebel said.
Sixth-grader Gabriella Reyes, 11, a member of the roundtable, said she considers electronic cigarettes "a health risk, and it is not proven to be healthier."
And Vincent Capolongo, 14, an eighth-grader, said he "wouldn't want to see someone pull out a cigarette, even if it is natural or synthetic."
In the Middle Country school district, Superintendent Roberta Gerold, who is president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said the district banned e-cigarettes in the 2009-10 school year to send a message to the student body.
"We wanted to make sure they didn't think it was OK to have electronic cigarettes in school," she said.