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SMMUSD HDQTRS — An old adage reads, "Where there's smoke, there's fire."
When it comes to an emerging trend in smoking, it's actually vapor that local educators in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District are cracking down on.
The Board of Education added smokeless cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, to the list of prohibited products under its "tobacco-free schools" policy last week, joining several other state and federal agencies in banning the product.
The change means that students aged 18 or above and anybody else that uses district facilities are prohibited from "smoking" electronic cigarettes on school grounds.
A recent California law banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, but nothing prevented them from being used on school sites either by 18-year-old students nor adults that use the campuses for other things, like sports.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices formed of a cartridge that contains a nicotine solution and an atomizer which heats the solution until it forms a steam.
Users inhale the steam like smoke, and get a rush of nicotine similar to smoking a cigarette.
The things even look like cigarettes, to the point that some manufacturers put a red LED light at the end of them to simulate burning.
By expanding the policy to include the e-cigs and other "nicotine delivery devices," board members protected future money from competitive state grants called Tobacco-Use Prevention Education, or TUPE.
The district spent $26,000 in TUPE money in the 2009-10 school year, but the money dried up in recent years when the economy sunk down, said Chief Financial Officer Jan Maez.
That funding came from a 1988 initiative called Proposition 99 that added a tax on tobacco products that was used to fund research into the effects of tobacco and then educate students about them, said Greg Wolfe, spokesperson for the California Department of Education.
While laws to keep schools tobacco-free have been on the books for decades, the department has had to expand what fits under that definition.
"We don't want youth exposed to nicotine or tobacco use," Wolfe said.
So far, e-cigarettes don't seem to have found a huge following amongst young people, according to a random sampling of Santa Monica High School students.
"Kids are still experimenting with real cigarettes," said Joe Colajezzi, a senior at Samohi. "(Electronic cigarettes) are for adults because they recognize they have a problem and know it is a safe alternative that makes them feel like they are smoking."
Colajezzi tried an e-cigarette recently, and wasn't impressed.
"My dad was sitting on it, and I noticed it," he said. "I asked him why you don't just smoke a real cigarette?"
For one, the e-cigarettes have been sold as healthier because they don't involve burning, which introduces thousands of extra chemicals including carbon monoxide, which contributes to strokes and heart attacks.
People have long-accepted the health impacts of normal cigarettes, both on the smoker and the people around them, but the jury is still out on e-cigarettes.
The Federal Drug Administration, which first tried to regulate the product in 2008, found that the cartridges that carry the nicotine solution have cancer-causing and toxic chemicals in them, including diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in anti-freeze.
That could have an impact on bystanders downwind of the exhaled vapor, according to the FDA.
To date, there isn't much solid information about the impacts of e-cigarettes, but some feel it has to be better than the alternative.
Dr. David Baron, of Primary Caring in Santa Monica, approves of e-cigarettes as a healthful alternative for those that already smoke to the point that he acts as an unpaid medical advisor to one of the e-cigarette companies, Smokestik.
He still fully supports the school ban because "appearances matter."
"It's not because I think that it's going to harm them, but because it simulates a toxic behavior," Baron said. "On the chance that it leads a nonsmoker to smoke, that would be a darn shame. We don't want that."
Baron is also against the inclusion of flavors to e-cigarettes that could attract kids to smoke.
"They should be sternly criticized and frowned upon as targeting young buyers. That's very legitimate," Baron said. "Clearly if you are targeting that audience to use e-cigarettes if they aren't already smoking, that's definitely worthy of criticism and a reason to ban these things."
But for the average smoker, the e-cigarette could be a useful tool to health.
The addictive element in tobacco, nicotine, isn't inherently harmful, Baron said.
If it can be delivered to smokers without carcinogenic tobacco, as is already done with nicotine patches and gums, but in a form that satisfies other elements of the smoking addiction, all the better.
"If there was a study that compared it to gum or the patch, I think it would show that it's superior because it meets so many of the needs of the smoker," Baron said. "It gives them something to hold, place in the lips, breathe in and out, and nicotine."
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