With a sweeping ruling that some are criticizing, the National Park Service has placed an outright ban on e-cigarettes.
The new policy went into effect on September 10 at all national parks. The ban also is in place at any facilities, vehicles and publicly shared spaces that are managed by the National Park Service.
"Protecting the health and safety of our visitors and employees is one of the most critical duties of the National Park Service," said Jonathan B. Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. "We are therefore extending the restrictions currently in place protecting visitors and employees from exposure to tobacco smoke to include exposure to vapor from electronic smoking devices."
With the decision the park service effectively puts e-cigs – which are flameless and smoke-free – in the same category as traditional tobacco cigarettes. The park service banned traditional cigarettes in 2003, citing the health hazards "associated with exposure to environmental tobacco smoke."
The park service in the new policy shared the reasoning behind the new e-cig ban:
"Acting (1) out of an abundance of caution in light of the scientific findings and uncertainty to date, and (2) in the interest of equity, the purpose of this Policy Memorandum is to afford all NPS employees and park visitors the same protections from exposure to nicotine and other harmful substances that may be found in ENDS [E-cigs] vapor that are currently in place for exposure to tobacco smoke."
While the park service acknowledged the "uncertainty" of scientific findings regarding the dangers of e-cigs, they pointed out that the new policy is in keeping with other similar bans by government agencies.
For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits vaping in all "interior spaces" owned and operated by it. And last year the U.S. Geological Survey also banned the use of e-cigs in all "interior space, courtyards, atriums, balconies and bus stops."
In the memo about the new policy, the National Park Service said the health concerns are based on the fact that nicotine is released via the vapor of an e-cig and that other studies have found that some e-cigs contain tobacco-specific nitrosamines (a human carcinogen) and diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze that is toxic to humans. The memo noted that e-cigarette vapor contains nicotine "at a level roughly one-tenth of that found in second-hand smoke."
The lumping of e-cigs in with traditional cigarettes is not sitting well with some, including the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based free market think tank. Dr. Joel L. Nitzkin, the institute's senior fellow for tobacco policy, penned a letter of opposition to the National Park Service.
"There is no need for such restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes and no public health or environmental benefit from doing so," Nitzkin wrote. "E-cigarettes involve no combustion. There is no fire hazard. As noted in your press release, exhaled vapor contains far less nicotine than secondhand cigarette smoke."
He also noted that the amount of nicotine in most e-cigs is insignificant and similar to what many of us ingest daily.
"While exhaled cigarette smoke is extremely hazardous, almost none of this risk is attributable to the nicotine," he wrote. "The amounts of nicotine in exhaled vapor are comparable to the amounts of nicotine people ingest on a daily basis. Eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and other common foods contain trace quantities of nicotine. I am not aware of any public-health authority ever urging restriction of intake of these vegetables or other nicotine-containing foods by infants, pregnant women or others to avoid brain damage, lung damage or addiction."
While he did acknowledge that e-cigs can contain trace quantities of toxic chemicals, he noted that these are "surely far less than the amounts of these same chemicals released by wood fires."
Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, also opposes the ban. The association advocates the use of e-cigarettes as an effective tool to quit smoking.
"Outdoor smoking bans in parks can at least somewhat be justified by the risk of fires, but vapor products pose no more of a fire risk than a cellphone battery," Conley told U.S. News and World Report.
"This behavior is shameful and any enforcement of the ban will constitute a great misuse of government resources," he added. "The National Park Service should leave ex-smokers alone and let them camp and hike in peace.