The Long Island Rail Road thanks you for not smoking on its trains -- even if it's not really smoke.
Responding to concerns raised by a commuter watchdog group, the LIRR has clarified its policy on smoking to also include a ban on electronic cigarettes.
So-called "e-cigs" are tobacco-free and emit water vapor rather than smoke. Advocates say they are a safer, cleaner alternative to traditional cigarettes.
But they can nonetheless present a problem, said Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council. Epstein said he's heard about half a dozen complaints in recent weeks from riders who have encountered e-cigarette users aboard trains.
In a written response to an inquiry from Epstein, the LIRR said it will interpret the LIRR's existing ban on smoking in trains to also cover e-cigarettes.
The ban, instituted in 2003, says that nobody can "burn a lighted cigarette, cigar, pipe or any other matter or substance which contains tobacco or a tobacco substitute" on a train or at a station. The LIRR in 2011 extended the ban to station platforms. The ban also covers the Metro-North Railroad.
LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said the LIRR would update its smoking policy on its website to specifically address e-cigarettes and will also inform riders via social media, leaflets, announcements and email alerts. "We always urge customers to be courteous to one another and to follow the law, which in this case bans the use of E-cigarettes," Arena said in a statement.
Audrey Silk, founder of the smokers' rights group New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, said the LIRR is clearly overreaching with its ban of e-cigarettes, which she said didn't even exist when the policy was written. She said by banning e-cigarettes, the LIRR is effectively discouraging efforts to reduce actual smoking.
"Turning the anti-smoking war against e-cigarettes shows that this is nothing but a moral intrusion," Silk said. "This is just bullying."
In a statement, Howard Panes, founder of Logic Technology, a Livingston, N.J., e-cigarette company, said he agreed that smoking e-cigarettes in confined spaces can sometimes "be off-putting to nonsmokers."
"While we don't see an issue with people smoking electronic cigarettes in open-air platform areas, we will always encourage our customers to abide by the rules and regulations of the MTA Long Island Rail Road," Panes said.
Violators of the ban face a $50 fine or 30 days in jail, in addition to removal from a train.
Epstein said his group is not taking a position on whether e-cigarettes should be banned or not, but rather just wanted the LIRR to adopt a policy and make it clear to riders and employees in order to avoid confrontations.
"We're happy now that the railroad has a policy regarding this," he said. "It's a new technology and it needs new policy."