By JAMIE KELLY of the Missoulian | Posted: Saturday, November 26, 2011 6:15 am

Missoula County Public Schools policy bans ‘e-cigarettes’

An updated Missoula County Public Schools tobacco policy targets devices that are growing in popularity nationwide as smoking bans take hold everywhere: electronic vapor cigarettes.

Also known as “e-cigarettes,” the battery-powered devices give users a hit of nicotine through puffs on a plastic, cigarette-shaped cartridge, which creates a cloud of water vapor they then exhale. The process is called “vaping.” No smoke is exhaled and the devices are entirely free of tobacco.

The new language of the MCPS policy directly mirrors language from a policy recommendation by the state Office of Public Instruction, which bans teachers, staff and students from using “nicotine innovations” on school campuses and at official school functions.

Elizabeth Kaleva, attorney for MCPS, said OPI was quite firm in its recommendation that districts ban such “nicotine innovations.”

“This is the first time I can remember OPI saying, ‘We would really like you to look at your tobacco policy,’ ” she said.

MCPS passed the updated policy language at its Nov. 6 school board meeting.

Districts across the state started receiving a memo from OPI last year, asking them to update their tobacco policies to include the new language.

Missoula’s largest school district is the only one in western Montana to have adopted the policy recommendation.

Though “nicotine innovation” doesn’t specifically mention vapor cigarettes – such language could technically cover nicotine gum, patches or lozenges designed to help a teacher quit smoking, for example – that is the clear intent of the updated policy, said school board trustee Scott Bixler.

“When you’re talking about a patch, or a medically prescribed or over-the-counter aid to stop smoking, I don’t think the school board will be looking at those as something we would take action on,” he said.

OPI tobacco specialist Dana Geary said all comments from her office must first go through communications director Allyson Hagen, who did not return phone calls to the Missoulian.

Kaleva said MCPS will interpret the language to ban only vapor cigarettes and any future devices that deliver nicotine to the bloodstream.

“Until we’re told differently,” she said, “e-cigarettes are not acceptable on school property. The patch and gum would be.”

Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tried to ban the sale of e-cigarettes, saying they have not been proven as a safe alternative to smoking. But a federal court overruled the agency.

Studies in the U.S. and Britain have shown e-cigarettes to be especially effective in helping smokers give up the real thing, since unlike gum or patches, they satisfy the smoker’s oral fixation as well as deliver nicotine.

Still, e-cigarettes are being targeted in jurisdictions across the country as government agencies say their health risks are unknown and they could be a “gateway drug” for minors to start smoking actual cigarettes.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at [email protected]

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