HEATHROW airport has opened what purports to be the world’s first airport “vaping zone” for smokers of e-cigarettes. The room, which is sponsored by a manufacturer of the cigarettes, is in the departure lounge at Terminal 4 and will be restricted to over 18s. The opening marks a softening of Heathrow’s traditional stance as a “smoke-free airport”, though the airport stresses that all forms of smoking remain forbidden everywhere else on the premises.

Non-smokers may consider the new facility an irrelevance, but its introduction underscores the need for clear regulation about the acceptability of e-cigarettes, which vaporise a solution containing nicotine without the toxins from burning tobacco. The devices are—apparently—prohibited on American and European flights. America's Department of Transportation (DoT) announced plans to ban them in September 2011, but it seems not to have followed up on the move. An investigation earlier this year by "Business Insider" exposed widespread confusion among regulators. The DoT passed the buck to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the civil aviation regulator, which responded by saying that airlines are free to set their own guidelines. That contravened an earlier insistence by the DoT that “smoking of electronic cigarettes is already banned” under existing law. Gulliver is no legal expert, but the legislation cited by the DoT  appears to relate solely to tobacco products, and e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. It’s all a bit hazy.

So what happens if you start vaping in the skies? Best not to find out. Cloud Nine, a blog about e-cigarettes, has published a non-exhaustive list of airlines that ban the devices. It could not identify one single carrier that permits them (Ryanair’s allowance of smokeless cigarettes does not qualify, as they are vapour-free). This has not stopped one e-cigarette manufacturer, Vapestick, publishing guidance on “getting away with” vaping during flights–a practice which they insist “isn’t illegal”. Reasoning with cabin crew about the lack of smoke is one approach mentioned. If that fails, try vaping in the toilets. (Gulliver suspects this is already commonplace: the vapour produced by e-cigarettes can set off smoke alarms, but often does not.)

It is clear why airlines are not keen on the practice. Health and safety is not the issue. Much like Wetherspoons, a British pub chain, airlines worry that the sight of people puffing away will cause discomfort and confusion. Arguments could easily erupt, and less observant passengers may deduce that lighting up a real cigarette is now acceptable. Proponents of e-cigarettes claim that they are “fake cigarettes” with no discernible dangers to smokers or people nearby.

For now then the issue is still in doubt but one thing is for sure, e-cigarettes are starting to creep in to everyday life and places like Heathrow are just the start.

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Read the whole article at http://www.economist.com/node/21591039

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