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How should airlines handle passengers sneaking vapes off an e-cigarette -- mid-flight?

How should airlines handle passengers sneaking vapes off an e-cigarette -- mid-flight?
Vaping is as illegal as any other sort of smoking in flight. If you see someone doing it, notify an attendant. (David Cooper / Toronto Star / Getty Images)

Question: Recently, I flew into L.A. on a nonstop flight from Paris. During the flight, a guy at the other end of my center row smoked an e-cigarette very secretively. He would cover the e-cig in his hand, suck it lightly, exhale slowly, then put it back in his pocket. I informed a flight attendant. She walked up and down the aisle to observe him but didn't see anything. I contacted the airline and was told that the attendant had to witness the act in order to do anything. What can legally be done when someone secretly smokes an e-cig on board? I think airline policies need to keep up with changes in technology.

Randy Kahn

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Calabasas

Answer: Let's be clear, first of all, that smoking in any form is not allowed on airlines, even if it's the newest innovation in delivering nicotine.

The Department of Transportation thinks that the ban on smoking of any sort is covered by the regulations already on the books. But just in case rule-breakers ask where that's written, the DOT will, probably by year's end, add language to its federal registry that spells out that rule for e-cigarette smokers, just in case they don't know how to spell N-O.

By the way, you can take an e-cigarette on board in your carry-on luggage, but you cannot put one in your checked bag because its lithium ion battery may pose a fire hazard. But that doesn't mean you can vape on board, as Kahn's seatmate apparently did.

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Alaska Airlines prohibits use of e-cigs because the airline doesn't allow what it calls "self-heating equipment" to be used onboard. (Liquid inside the e-cig is heated to create the vapor.) Just as MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) aren't allowed because they have a heating element, neither are e-cigs, an Alaska spokeswoman said.

Now to the issue of flight attendants approaching a miscreant. Airline reps I spoke with (none from the airline Kahn flew on) concurred that direct observation is key to addressing suspected behavior. Or, said another way, you have to see the jerk doing this before you bust his chops.

Here's what K.W. Nieh, a spokesman for EVA Air, which was not the airline in question, said in an email: "If a passenger reports that another passenger is smoking, an EVA flight attendant will check to verify. If the flight attendant catches the smoker in the act, the flight attendant will explain the no-smoking rule to that passenger. The flight attendant will also make an announcement to remind all passengers of the no-smoking rule, inform the captain of the incident and record the incident."

But Alaska (also not the airline in question) said its flight attendants do not "need to personally see any activity to make the request for the person to stop."

The prevailing philosophy, said R.C. Stevens, a flight attendant for a regional airline, is informing, not enforcing.

"If we don't see it ourselves, there's not really a whole lot that we are able to do about it, unfortunately," said Stevens, author of "Thirty Synchronized Woodpeckers," which explores the world of aviation from a flight attendant's point of view. In a previous career as a security director, she frequently ran into the same issue, she said in an email.

If you're thinking an e-cigarette is a good way to address nicotine cravings in flight, you might want to reconsider. Dr. Joseph Austin Jr., a pulmonologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital, would suggest a nicotine patch or gum because the Food and Drug Administration has approved them; e-cigarettes have not been OK'd as a smoking cessation tool.

As a pulmonologist, he is understandably not a fan of e-cigarettes, which, he notes, deliver as much nicotine as a cigarette, produce a byproduct that may be harmful to innocent bystanders and contain propylene glycol, which can be fatal if ingested (although, he notes, it's not easy to get to).

Some users say that the e-cig is safer than regular cigarettes. We probably won't know for several years, he said, because this is a relatively new product.

But apparently the process of declaring that something is a problem can be a lengthy one. Tobacco was introduced to Europe in the 1500s; it wasn't until January 1964 that "Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General" dropped the bombshell that smoking would adversely affect health.

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I'm not sure the world would be worse off if every cigarette or cigarette-like device went up in smoke. But until that happens, keep your e-cigs in your carry-on bag, wear the patch or chew the gum, and think about how much more money for travel you'll have if you quit.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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