The battery-operated products, known as e-cigarettes, are designed to deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals as a vapor that is inhaled by the user. According to data from the 2011 Department of Defense Survey of Health Related Behaviors, e-cigarettes have been tried by 5 percent of Airmen, and 2.2 percent of Airmen have used e-cigarettes in the past year.
"Airmen are using e-cigarettes at a level comparable to the civilian adult population," said Col. (Dr.) John Oh, the chief of health promotion at the Air Force Medical Support Agency, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But e-cigarettes use is rapidly growing among youths and have been used by 10 percent of high school students."
While e-cigarettes have been advertised as a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes, studies have found potentially harmful ingredients are contained in the product, including nitrosamines, diethylene glycol and animal carcinogens. Colonel Oh cautioned Airmen against using e-cigarettes as a substitute for smoking.
"Not enough is known about the long-term safety of e-cigarettes to definitely state that they are safe," he said.
The Food and Drug Administration categorizes e-cigarettes as a tobacco product.Regulatory guidance, however, is pending, so e-cigarettes are marketed without any of the restrictions of conventional cigarettes. They may also be sold to minors, advertised widely and marketed without warning labels.
"There is a real concern that unfettered access to, and marketing of e-cigarettes will create a generation of youths hooked on nicotine -- and this trend could lead to greater traditional cigarette or other smokeless tobacco use," Oh said.
Air Force Instruction 40-102, Tobacco Use, establishes tobacco policy in the Air Force and explicitly includes e-cigarettes under the definition of tobacco, subjecting the product to all the restrictions implemented for cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco. The Air Force is the first service to establish an e-cigarette policy.
Although e-cigarettes have passionate devotees, the Air Force position is to treat e-cigarettes as any other tobacco product. Oh said future changes to policy will be made based on the scientific evidence and in consultation with subject matter experts, both within and outside the Department of Defense.