Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 4, 2018.

The Rise of Vaping

The popular smoking devices raise a number of campus fire safety concerns, including disabled smoke alarms


As a new generation moves through the higher-education system, it brings with it a set of behaviors that poses potential fire and life safety risks. One of those hazards is vaping, or the use of a slim, battery–powered device to inhale vaporized, often-flavored nicotine or other drugs like marijuana.

According to The New Yorker, the occurrence of vaping nicotine in many high schools in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. “Smoking is gross,” a high schooler told the magazine for an article published in May. “Juuling is really what’s up.” (Juul® is a leading brand in the vaping industry, and its name has become synonymous with the act of vaping.) Countless other articles have painted a similar picture of American youth gripped by addiction to the nicotine fix these devices deliver. The New Yorker article quoted a student at Cornell University who observed that students can be found vaping in “every nook and cranny” of the campus.

Vaping is already prevalent on campuses and will only become more so if trends reported by the media hold true, and its presence has challenged campus safety officials like Jody Nolan at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in upstate New York. In an interview with NFPA Journal, Nolan said that vaping devices "are definitely a problem” on RIT’s campus, where safety officials have seen an increase in smoke alarms activated by the thick vapor that emanates from the devices.

The school’s response has in part been to update its housing policy to prohibit the “smoking of any materials” in or near on-campus housing, she said, but campus safety officials are still faced with students who tamper with alarms so they can vape in peace.

At Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, the use of the devices has also burdened safety officials. An article published in December 2017 in the university’s student newspaper reported a staggering 320 percent jump in the number of fire alarms in on-campus housing triggered by vaping in the fall 2017 semester versus the entire previous academic year.

While the health risks of vaping are largely unclear, the devices—which can be as small as a flash drive and are called by a number of names, including electronic, or e, cigarettes and vape pens—use lithium ion batteries that have been known to combust. The same month the New Yorker article came out, authorities in Florida reported what appeared to be the country’s first death linked to an exploding vape pen, according to The New York Times.

Still, the incidents remain rare, and it’s important to note that the number of fires caused by traditional, combustible cigarettes and other smoking materials is significantly higher than those caused by vaping devices. According to NFPA data, more than 15,000 home structure fires are sparked by smoking materials each year, while an NFPA report published in 2016 that examined fires associated with vaping devices found only “25 separate e-cigarette fires and explosions dating to 2009.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images