E-cigarettes are gaining traction as legitimate harm-reduction alternatives for cigarette smokers, but one nagging question persists: should vaping be permitted in interior public spaces?

With few exceptions, indoor smoking bans, which protect nonsmokers from exposure to thousands of airborne toxins, are now the standard.  Tobacco prohibitionists would extend these measures to cover e-cigarette vapor.  E-cigarette enthusiasts insist they should be able to vape wherever they like, since their products’ vapor is harmless.  I’ll suggest a compromise that will please no one in these polarized factions.

E-cig fans point to scientific evidence that suggests that e-cigarette vapor confers extremely low health risks.  The Food and Drug Administration reports that adverse events related to e-cigarettes are virtually nonexistent, and it is unlikely that inhaling a mist of water, propylene glycol or glycerin, nicotine and flavors – even for an extended period – will lead to any medical illness.

Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives funded a study of e-cigarette aerosols by Igor Burstyn at Drexel University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.  He concluded that:

There is no evidence that vaping produces inhalable exposures to contaminants of the aerosol that would warrant health concerns by the standards that are used to ensure safety of workplaces…the aerosol generated during vaping as a whole (contaminants plus declared ingredients), if it were an emission from industrial process, creates personal exposures that would justify surveillance of health among exposed persons in conjunction with investigation of means to keep health effects as low as reasonably achievable.  Exposures of bystanders are likely to be orders of magnitude less, and thus pose no apparent concern. 

Professor Burstyn’s report on his thorough investigation has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed forum.

The problem is that, however innocuous e-cigarette aerosols are, a bystander exposure level that is “orders of magnitude” lower than for vapers is still not zero.  Modern indoor environments are remarkably free of obvious airborne contaminants, such as smoke or noxious odors.  As a society, we frown upon indoor emissions of all types.  Interestingly, unobserved e-cig use is effectively undetectable, as resulting vapors dissipate almost instantly.  Vapers often suggest that indoor e-cig bans will force them outside, where they may return to deadly cigarettes. The reality is they can stay indoors and continue vaping, so long as they are discreet – no one will know.

Still, it is unreasonable for vapers to expect that they will be given a free pass to use e-cigarettes in every interior public space.  The fact that e-cigarette aerosols are low-exposure and low-risk for bystanders does not make a compelling case to allow them.

Vapers should realize that the vast majority of Americans do not use any form of tobacco, are ill-informed at best about e-cigarettes, and are uncomfortable with others exhaling clouds of an unknown substance.

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