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California campuses graduate from 'smoke free' to 'tobacco free'

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Sue Ogrocki/AP/File

(Read caption) A sampling of electronic cigarette supplies are seen in a shop in Oklahoma City. E-cigarette inhalers are an odorless, vapor-emitting substitute for tobacco cigarettes. California is considering a bill to outlaw all tobacco products statewide on college campuses.

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The State of California is attempting to progress existing anti-tobacco laws by making college campuses currently smoke-free become tobacco-free, in efforts to "denormalize" a host of new tobacco products now on the market. 

The greater goal of this law is not just protection against second-hand smoke, but a firewall of sorts to prevent a younger demographic from picking up the tobacco habit. Despite decades of anti-smoking programs, nearly one-third of US college students use traditional tobacco such as cigars, cigarettes, and chewing tobacco, while others experiment with new smokeless products. 

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On Monday, the California Assembly approved a ban on tobacco use on all California State University and community college campuses. 

The bill AB1594 now heads to the state Senate. It would prohibit chewing, dipping, smoking, or vaping natural or synthetic tobacco products on all 136 campuses in the California State University system and community colleges. About 2.5 million students attend those schools, which have about 100,000 staff and faculty members. 

"This measure will promote a safe and healthy environment for students to learn and make campuses a more education-friendly environment and tobacco-smoke-free," Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D) of Sacramento, who proposed the bill, said on Monday. 

The proposal would allow school trustees and board members to decide whether to fine campus smokers up to $100, which would go toward education programs on campus.  

The bill would put California "on the cutting edge," Chris Bostic, deputy director for policy at Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a Washington, D.C.-based anti-smoking organization, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a telephone interview. "Hopefully other states will follow suit."

To "smoke" on a California campus would now mean to "inhale, exhale, burn, or carry any lit or heated, cigar, cigarette, pipe, or any other product intended for the inhalation of tobacco or another plant product, whether natural or synthetic, in any manner or in any form," according to AB1594. In other words, electronic smoking and tobacco chewing would be prohibited along with traditional cigarettes, cigars, and hookahs, regardless of whether they produce smoke or not. 

Both e-cigarettes and vape (a larger, pen-like tube) produce vapor rather than smoke by vaporizing a liquid sometimes called "e-juice." The battery-charged devices contain a small heating coil which turns the liquid into an inhalable vapor. 

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Hookah, on the other hand, produces smoke which passes through water before being inhaled. 

"Using a hookah is the worst possible use," says Mr. Bostic. "They’ve now looked at a one hour use of a hookah as being the equivalent of smoking 100 cigarettes. There's this sort of urban myth that having the smoke come through water somehow cleanses it, and it doesn't at all."

That "urban myth" still seems popular: fifty-eight percent of hookah users in a 2009 San Diego study believed that smoking hookah was safer than smoking cigarettes. Almost one-third of college students use cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco, but others have experimented with such products as e-cigarettes and hookahs, often believing they are less harmful.

One of the California bill's goals, Bostic says, is to "denormalize tobacco use" by including smokeless products in the ban. 

And it's not just customers who are focusing more on smokeless tobacco. The industry is also shifting towards "e-smoking," some analysts say. 

"As the big tobacco companies are taking over more of the e-cigarette companies and fighting harder and harder to protect them, they are spending a lot of money [to keep] this kind of legislation from succeeding," Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the efficacy of tobacco control policies, tells the Monitor. 

But tobacco-free is becoming a trend at schools, he says. Colleges "shouldn't be supporting the use of dangerous and addictive products," Dr. Glantz believes, and it may pay off. 

"The important thing is that these policies do make a difference," he says. "You see increased intention to quit. The amount of demonstrable use goes down."