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Most University of Wisconsin System campuses ban e-cigarettes in and near campus buildings, but university officials say enforcement of anti-smoking policies is relatively lax.

Teen vaping rates have risen sharply across the country this year and more than 1,000 cases of severe lung injury from vaping have been reported in recent months, including 19 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week. As of Thursday, Wisconsin had 69 cases and was investigating 17 more.

Law enforcement and health officials report vaping is most prominent among high school students, but college campuses are not removed from the trend.

While no official diagnoses have been made at UW student health clinics, some have seen patients presenting with vaping-related symptoms.

One in every five incoming UW-Madison freshmen this year reported using e-cigarettes within two weeks before arriving on campus, according to survey results submitted to University Health Services.

“Every day, I see students vaping and Juuling on campus,” said UW-Madison junior Adileen Sii, referring to the e-cigarette brand Juul. “I feel like it’s renormalizing tobacco products on campus.”

Sii is president of SPARK, a student group advocating for the university to be a tobacco-free campus. SPARK members met with student government leaders earlier this semester and hope to meet with University Health Services (UHS) executive director Jake Baggott to encourage a ban on smoking and vaping anywhere on campus, indoors and out.

Baggott, through a spokeswoman, said UHS wants to update its smoke-free policy and explore what it would take to become a tobacco-free campus.

Four UW campuses — UW-Milwaukee, UW-Stout, UW-Stevens Point and UW-River Falls — ban smoking and vaping across all campus grounds.

Most other campus policies don’t call for a blanket ban, but do prohibit e-cigarettes in campus buildings and within 25 to 30 feet from a building. For example, UW-Madison updated its anti-smoking policy in 2016 to specifically ban e-cigarettes in those areas after receiving requests from many students and employees for clarification.

UW-Whitewater’s smoking policy doesn’t specifically address e-cigarettes, but its housing policy does.

UW-Eau Claire and UW-Oshkosh don’t include e-cigarettes in their anti-smoking policies. UW-Oshkosh attempted to add e-cigarettes to its anti-smoking policy in 2017, but the policy change failed during a shared governance process, university spokeswoman Natalie Johnson said.

Symptoms reported

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No UW-Madison student using a campus clinic has met the CDC’s criteria for vaping-related lung injuries, but the diagnosis requires tests ordered for a hospitalized patient, so the clinic making the diagnosis is unlikely, UHS director Bill Kinsey said through a spokeswoman.

Kinsey told The Daily Cardinal that several students have presented with vaping-related symptoms.

At other schools:

  • UW-La Crosse and UW-Parkside health directors report seeing multiple students with symptoms. One UW-Parkside student who vaped was diagnosed with bronchitis or asthma. 
  • UW-Stout and UW-Green Bay student clinics have each seen one case of symptoms that could be related to vaping, according to clinic representatives.
  • UW-Oshkosh, UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Whitewater haven’t seen vaping cases in their student health clinics, representatives said.
  • UW-Superior students with medical needs are referred to an off-campus clinic, so officials were unable to say if symptoms have been reported.

Enforcement vs. behavior

Like most other college campuses, UW-Madison’s anti-smoking policy is largely self-enforced.

The university’s police department rarely issues citations because it doesn’t receive many complaints, UWPD spokesman Marc Lovicott said.

UW-Milwaukee police are focused more on education than enforcement, university spokeswoman Michelle Johnson said. The department has issued warnings, but no citations.

UW-Stout was the first four-year public campus in Wisconsin to go tobacco-free in 2010. University spokesman Doug Mell said there was some resistance in the first few years, but they now see little tobacco and e-cigarette use.

The Tobacco-Free Columbia-Dane County Coalition surveyed nearly 10,000 on UW-Madison’s campus in 2017 and found 81% of students, 85% of faculty and 77% of staff supported going tobacco-free.

Coalition Coordinator Ryan Sheahan said establishing a tobacco-free campus doesn’t change the voluntary nature of enforcement, but sets a tone with students that smoking is not the norm.

With vaping popular among high school students, he said colleges going tobacco-free can get ahead of the students that will soon arrive on their campuses.

“When you advertise (campus) as tobacco-free, three to five years down the line students just expect it,” Sheahan said. “It’s overdue for Madison to have something like this.”

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