WASHINGTON, March 2 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday announced a rule change to explicitly bar electronic cigarettes on commercial flights traveling in, entering or leaving the United States.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the rule aims to protect passengers from the effects of e-cigarettes, also known as "vaping," which combine nicotine with water vapor to simulate tobacco smoking.
Another reason for the prohibition, Foxx said, is to avoid potential confusion among passengers as to which type of smoking is banned and which is allowed on airlines.
"This final rule is important because it protects airline passengers from unwanted exposure to aerosol fumes that occur when electronic cigarettes are used onboard airplanes," Foxx said. "The Department took a practical approach to eliminate any confusion between tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes by applying the same restrictions to both."
The final rule was posted in the Federal Register for public comment.
Although some argue that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to tobacco, they have received similar treatment in recent years to traditional smokes. Governments have regulated their sale, and some places have banned their use along with tobacco products.
E-cigarettes also may pose a danger ordinary cigarettes don't -- potential explosion. Multiple users have reported malfunctions with their e-cigarettes in recent years that resulted in the device's battery exploding.
Further, some health experts question whether vapor nicotine delivery is really that much safer than tobacco.
"Electronic cigarettes cause concern because studies have shown that e-cigarette aerosol can contain a number of harmful chemicals," the Transportation Department said in a news release Wednesday. "While further study is needed to fully understand the risks, the Department believes that a precautionary approach is best.
"The Department is particularly concerned that vulnerable populations (such as children, the elderly, and passengers with respiratory issues) would be exposed to the aerosol within a confined space, without the opportunity to avoid the chemicals."
The department's ban, however, does not include medical use devices like nebulizers.
Also, the ban applies to not just scheduled commercial flights, but to unscheduled charter flights that require at least one flight attendant.
Tobacco smoking on most commercial flights was first banned in the United States in 1988 and was amended to prohibit cigarettes on all flights in 2000.