The proportion of students who reported having ever used e-cigarettes...

The proportion of students who reported having ever used e-cigarettes last year doubled from 2011 to 10 percent for high school students and to 2.7 percent for middle school students. (June 12, 2013) Credit: PA Wire/Press Association

The sight of riders puffing away on electronic cigarettes spurred the Long Island Rail Road's commuter council to ask recently if e-cigs violate the line's smoking ban.

The LIRR responded that they do, and cited a regulation that it's illegal to "burn a lighted cigarette, cigar, pipe or any other matter or substance which contains tobacco or any tobacco substitute."

The odd thing is that e-cigarettes don't really contain tobacco. They use battery power to heat nicotine-laced liquid into vapor. Whatever the legal justification, the LIRR is still on the right track.

The key ingredient in e-cigarettes is propylene glycol, commonly used in deicing agents and antifreeze. The Food and Drug Administration has said it is generally safe for use in food. However, the long-term risks of inhalation are not clear. A German cancer institute reviewed research on e-cigarettes and said secondhand exposure may raise a child's risk for asthma.

Further, the German study said: "Adverse health effects for third parties exposed cannot be excluded because the use of electronic cigarettes leads to emission of fine and ultrafine inhalable liquid particles, nicotine and cancer-causing substances into indoor air."

As the devices are touted as an aid to quit smoking, U.S. cigarette makers are jumping into the market with flavors that include strawberry and piña colada. Meanwhile, the FDA is studying e-cigarette health effects and whether to regulate the devices as it regulates tobacco.

As with tobacco, it's not necessarily the risk to smokers themselves that creates concern, but to those who, in public spaces like trains, have no choice but to inhale secondhand vapor. Until more definitive health studies are done, the LIRR is wise to protect nonsmokers from the unknown effects of electronic cigarettes.

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