E-cigarettes heat nicotine into a vapor that the user inhales. (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS)

While the federal government decides how to regulate electronic cigarettes, many university officials are moving ahead with campus rules about e-cigarettes.

Several universities have already prohibited the devices or are set to ban them in upcoming years.

At Idaho State University, Missouri State University and the University of Texas at Austin, for example, officials have updated their smoking policies to ban e-cigarettes. The products soon will be prohibited at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and all campuses in the University of California system.

Several other campuses permit the products, though authorities might follow the lead of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and discourage their use.

Such inconsistency reflects a lack of consensus among scientists and public health experts as to what exactly e-cigarettes are, what their long-term impact on health may be and how the Food and Drug Administration should regulate them.

“The products are relatively new, but the science about them has been developing,” said Karen Williams, the assistant director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California at San Francisco. “I think it’s really just a matter of time as everyone learns about the products before all universities take the step to prohibit them on campus.”

E-cigarettes look like traditional cigarettes but are battery-operated products that heat tobacco-derived nicotine and other chemicals into a vapor that the user inhales, a process called “vaping.”

In 2010, the FDA determined that certain e-cigarettes were unapproved pharmaceutical products and detained or refused imports from some manufacturers. One manufacturer fought back, and a federal court held that e-cigarettes aren’t pharmaceutical products but that the FDA could regulate them as tobacco products.

Regulating the cigarette look-alikes as tobacco products would make them subject to the age, marketing and packaging restrictions that apply to traditional cigarettes. It might prohibit sales to minors, ban advertising on television and require warning labels on packaging. The White House is reviewing a proposal from the FDA; the process might last 90 days or more.

Meanwhile, the debate about the potential benefits and risks of e-cigarettes has escalated.

Advocates promote the products as healthier alternatives to cigarettes that give users their nicotine fixes without the toxins and carcinogens generated by burning tobacco. Some advocates also say they might help smokers quit.

But critics say e-cigarettes may increase nicotine addiction and tobacco use among young people; they also point out that the FDA says not enough research has been done for consumers to know whether the items are safe or harmful.

Despite those unknowns, e-cigarettes are gaining popularity among young adults.

The American Journal of Public Health said last year that 53 percent of young adults who had heard of e-cigarettes thought they were less harmful than traditional cigarettes; almost 45 percent thought they could help them quit smoking. Another study found that 50 percent of young adults would try an e-cigarette if a friend offered them one.

While more than 1,000 campuses nationwide are smoke-free, some universities policies leave a loophole for e-cigarettes — which, after all, are smoke-free.

At Pennsylvania State University, for example, the no-smoking policy enacted in 2006 doesn’t mention the products; students may use them on campus, said Annemarie Mountz, the university’s assistant director of public information.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the no-smoking policy implemented in 2008 also doesn’t mention e-cigarettes, but university officials are wary of students using the products.

“We consider them to be inconsistent with the goals of the policy, and, when asked, we have discouraged their use in our no-smoking areas,” said Susan Hudson, the outreach editor of UNC News Services.

— McClatchy-Tribune