Vaping in the US Military
Despite not being available at commissaries, vaping has surged in popularity among members of the US military. The Department of Defense treats e-cigarettes like tobacco products. Use is restricted to specifically designated outdoor areas. These obstacles have not halted the spread of vaping in the US armed forces. The most recent data compiled by the Rand Corporation in 2015, showed that e-cigarettes were rapidly replacing traditional cigarettes as the primary source of nicotine in the armed forces. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of vapers increased five-fold in the US military. A new “Health Related Behaviors Survey” will conclude at the end of February 2019. It will shed additional light on this subject, but it seems likely that an even greater number of active duty military have embraced smoke-free cigarette alternatives over the last 3 years. Vaping crushed nicotine replacement therapy as a smoking cessation tool in a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. There is no reason to think these findings wouldn’t apply to active duty military.

Smoking Was Once Common in the Military

Until 2011, smoking rates in the military were significantly higher than among the general population. That year, 24 percent were active smokers (smoked once in previous month) versus 19 percent of the general population. In 2015, that number had dropped to 13.9 percent. This represented a lower rate than the general population, of which 15.5 percent still smoked in 2015. Across the entire military in 2015 only 7.4 percent smoked cigarettes daily as opposed to the 11.1 percent who vaped every day. One in five junior enlisted personnel use e-cigs, demonstrating that vaping is likely to continue to grow in popularity. The percentage of vapers is not evenly distributed among the branches of the armed services, as shown in the chart below.

US Army Vaping Study

A University of Buffalo study shed some additional light onto the growth of e-cig popularity at the expense of cigarettes among active duty military. Surveying 105 National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers, they found that the daily vapers found e-cigarettes at least as satisfying as cigarettes and a full 58 percent found vaping to be “far more satisfying”. The importance of this study is that it undercuts the argument that vaping is a gateway to smoking. They argued that the first generation of disposable cigarettes may have been less effective but more modern versions provide a far more authentic experience. Dr. Lynn Kozlowski, author of the study, had pointed words for critics of vaping who spread exaggerated fears and vaping myths.
“Those who try to exaggerate fears of vaping products should consider their role in keeping smokers smoking. Telling people only that no product is ‘safe’ is an irresponsible message.”
The US Army acknowledges the potential benefit of e-cigarettes for former smokers but recommend that non-smokers should not pick up the habit. This view mirrors ours at Vapor4Life, our goal is to provide an authentic alternative to current smokers. We have no interest in recruiting non-smokers, and no interest whatsoever in fueling what is referred to as the teen vaping epidemic.
“E-cigarettes have the potential to benefit adult smokers who are not pregnant if used as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products.”

The Marine Corps and Vaping

The Army at least acknowledged the potential of e-cigarettes to reduce cigarette harm. Unfortunately, the official Marine Corps “Vape Myth Busting” resource page is chock full of long disproven zombie vaping myths. This hardline stance has not worked out as planned. Marines had the highest smoking rates before 2011 and now have the highest rate of e-cig use. As vaping is most prevalent among younger personnel, perhaps the next generation of leadership can take a more enlightened stance or at least update their resources to reflect more up to date research.

US Navy E-Cig Ban

A series incidents led to the US Navy issuing a fleet wide e-cig ban in 2017. This crack down at sea has not halted the transition to e-cigarettes among active service members. The Navy Press release announcing a fleet wide ban was issued in the spring of 2017. There were no plans to implement a similar ban on land. The policy “suspends the use, possession, storage, and charging of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems aboard ships, submarines, aircraft, boats, craft and heavy equipment.” This strict rule applies to, “Sailors, Marines, Military Sealift Command civilians and any personnel working on or visiting those units.” Despite their efforts, 14.5 percent of Navy personnel vape daily. This number is second only to the US Marine Corps, where 16.1 percent of use e-cigs regularly. The ban was due to a total of 15 “mishaps”. Ten of these were attributed to improper storage of loose batteries in the service member’s clothing. Of the additional five incidents, four occurred while the device was in use.

US Navy and Lithium Ion Battery Safety

The Navy’s concerns about e-cig safety dangers could be largely remedied by simple 18650 battery safety techniques. The same lithium ion battery technology in these vaporizers is also found in laptop computers and cellphones. Banning these items was not practical. The Navy’s memorandum actually provided a commendable run down of vaping safety measures. They recommended a silicone or plastic storage case for loose batteries, to never store batteries where they may come into contact with metal, to refrain from storing vaping devices in bunks, automobiles or metal lockers. Purchasing batteries and devices from reputable manufacturers, using only the original charger, paying attention to USB outlets because they can vary in power output, charging batteries they can be monitored and free from clutter were a few additional tips they provided. In another interesting twist, the Navy’s general concern with lithium ion battery safety has led to research into less flammable alternatives. As Science reported in 2017, the Naval Research Lab has developed a rechargeable nickel-3D zinc battery, which they describe as an energy dense and safer alternative to lithium ion batteries.

Vaping Safer Than Cigarettes at Sea?

At the dawn of the e-cig revolution, the US Navy was enthusiastic about the prospects of fewer ashes strewn about their facilities and smoking related fires. Indoor areas were set aside for vapers. Studies have shown that vaping prevents house fires. Unauthorized smoking while at sea or in port poses a similar danger on naval ships. The injuries suffered by naval personnel in the vaping accidents that led to the ban were unfortunate, but the total damages pale in comparison to the 70 million dollars damage suffered on the nuclear-powered super carrier USS George Washington in 2008. Unauthorized smoking was blamed for this calamity and the Commanding Officer Captain C. Dykhoff was relieved of command. As reported on Navy.mil, “The fire, which occurred in an unmanned Auxiliary Boiler Exhaust and Supply space, took approximately 12 hours to extinguish due to the location and geometry of adjacent spaces and ventilation systems that created a chimney effect.”

Vaping on Coast Guard Cutters

The US Coast Guard handles e-cigarettes and cigarettes in the same manner. This means it is barred from facilities and isolated to dedicated smoking areas. Interestingly, they do not appear to have the same severe sea ban as the US Navy in place. The 2018 Coast Guard Health Promotion Manual allows designated smoking areas on board of their ships and e-cigarettes are not banned. "Cutters may designate a section of the weather deck as a tobacco use area (smoking and smokeless). Designated areas must be a sufficient distance away from entrances and exits, so as not to allow smoke to be drawn into the interior of the ship through doors, hatches, or air intake units/vents." Vaping and smoking are not permitted on Coast Guard vehicles or in aircraft.

US Air Force and Vaping

USAF policies on vaping are fairly straightforward. It falls under the same ground rules as tobacco, it is banned medical campuses and work environments. Vaping is not permitted on Air Force vehicles or aircraft. The Air Force recommends adhering to common sense battery safety standards to protect yourself and loved ones, but thankfully do not go down the vaping myth rabbit hole.

Military Cigarette and E-Cig Sales

Although banned at commissaries, tobacco sales are permitted at military exchanges. The fundamental difference between a commissary and an exchange is that commissaries are not for profit. Both are exempt from local taxes. A commissary stocks essential items, especially food stuffs where an exchange will have a wider range of products available. The 2016 Defense Department Initiative to curtail smoking resulted in an average price increase of 26 to 32 percent for all tobacco products. Electronic cigarettes fell under this rule. Before the 2016 update, military exchanges were allowed to set their tobacco prices no lower than the lowest price available in the civilian community but omitted the state and local taxes. Cigarette sales have collapsed at exchanges. Between 2011 and 2017, they plunged from 68 million units to 37 million. E-cig sales have been more up and down. A report in the Military Times suggests that the sales of e-cigs at Navy Exchanges were impacted by the sea ban and an across the board tobacco price hike at all military exchanges in 2016. Navy exchange e-cig Sales peaked in 2015 at 45,458 units but the number dipped all the down to 24,451 by 2017. There was a slight uptick in 2018. Information on vaping rates during this time frame are not yet available, but if the rate of e-cig increased during this time it suggests that the inventory they carry and pricing, rather than the desirability of e-cigs, is to blame for the drop. E-cig sales at Marine Corps exchanges dipped through 2016 and have since that time spiked. During the first 11 months of the 2018 fiscal year, they had nearly doubled to 57,466 from 30,163 for all of 2017. E-cig sales at Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores have trended downwards since peaking at 272,705 in 2016.

Future of Vaping in Military

It seems extremely unlikely that the Department of Defense will be able to get the vaping genie back in the bottle. Hopefully, no policies will be enacted that will funnel members of the armed services back onto the combustible cigarette track. If the Navy really has developed a safer alternative to the lithium ion battery, they may even play a role in increasing the availability to ash and smoke free cigarette alternatives.