U.S. Grounds Electronic Cigarettes : Shots - Health News Smokers of electronic cigarettes are making videos of themselves using the devices on airplanes, but the U.S. Department of Transportation says the smokeless cigarettes aren't welcome aboard.
NPR logo Cigarettes, Even Smokeless Ones, Still Outlawed On U.S. Planes

Cigarettes, Even Smokeless Ones, Still Outlawed On U.S. Planes

Electronic cigarettes like these are grounded in the United States. Gerry Broome/AP hide caption

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Gerry Broome/AP

Electronic cigarettes like these are grounded in the United States.

Gerry Broome/AP

It's been a long time since commercial airlines in this country allowed smoking on board. We still remember those days — before 1990 — of hazy cabins, and even the upstairs lounges, perfect for smoking, aboard Pan Am flights.

So what about electronic cigarettes — the new devices designed to deliver nicotine with vapor instead of smoke? Are those OK? A few people, it seems, have amused themselves by making videos of their in-flight adventures "vaping" mock butts (viewable on YouTube here and here).

But the U.S. Department of Transportation is having none of it: this month Secretary Ray LaHood said regulations banning smoking cover e-cigarettes, and they apply to airlines, according to the Associated Press.

Health experts don't seem to know quite what to make of the newfangled gadgets. Are they safe? Deadly? Some say they'll help reduce secondhand smoke. Health Canada, the country's health department, advises against them on the grounds they could cause nicotine poisoning.

Are they a tobacco product or a drug delivery device? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says they count as tobacco. As we reported in December, a federal appeals court shot down the FDA's efforts to block the importation of these cigarettes. As tobacco, they can be regulated, but not banned.

But LaHood's announcement raises some interesting questions about how offensive cigarette lookalikes are in this day and age. Tobacco policy and social norms have come a long way since 1990, not just in the U.S., and the eerie red glow of the e-cigarette may make some travelers uneasy.

And what might it mean to inhale the nicotine vapor exhaled by a seatmate? Could secondhand vapor pose a risk? DOT hasn't specified why e-cigarettes on airplanes are unhealthy, and research in this area is still in the early stages.

Some European countries seem to think they're OK. Four commercial airlines, including Ireland's Ryanair, are even selling one brand, called Similar, on board.

The International Civil Aviation Association, the group that largely drove the ban on smoking aboard planes around the world, also doesn't seem worried about e-cigarettes. "I don't think they would be of any concern," spokesman Denis Chagnon tells Shots.

The e-cigarette option may also never appeal to some die-hard smokers. As Bloomberg noted last year, at least two people are found smoking old-fashioned cigarettes on airplanes every week, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.