The U.S. Navy has banned the use of e-cigarettes on virtually all fleet assets, including ships, submarines, boats, aircraft and heavy equipment. The ban covers servicemembers and all civilian personnel aboard any of the affected platforms.
The Navy says that the sweeping move is intended to address the risk of explosion stemming from the devices' lithium batteries. Multiple, continued reports of bodily harm – including burns and disfigurement – that resulted from the malfunction of "Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS)" prompted the service to ban the devices in order to protect personnel and equipment.
Commanders of vessels at sea may request an extension to the ban until they return to port, but only if all affected devices have their batteries removed and stored in a non-conductive container. Sailors may still use e-cigarettes on shore, but only in designated smoking areas.
E-cigarettes are filled with a liquid concentrate that contains nicotine, along with flavoring additives. They rely on a battery-powered heating element to vaporize the liquid; combustion is not part of the process, so tar and particulate matter are not produced. Most medical experts suggest that the absence of combustion makes the devices much less harmful than cigarettes – though not necessarily harmless, as nicotine itself is associated with heart disease.
The risk of explosion and bodily harm is low, but real: among the more severe instances, the medical literature contains incidents of eye injuries, broken bones, damaged teeth and second degree burns. Incidents of property damage – building and vehicle fires – have also been reported, many of them related to malfunctions during charging. An NIH study concluded that the risk was comparable to that posed by the lithium batteries in other consumer goods, like mobile phones.
A Navy spokesperson told NPR that sailors on surface ships will still be able to smoke conventional tobacco products on designated decks. In a statement, U.S. Fleet Forces and U.S. Pacific Fleet encouraged personnel to take advantage of the services' support options for smoking cessation.