NORFOLK -- The Navy is banning electronic cigarettes and vaporizers from its aircraft, ships and submarines after receiving multiple reports of the devices' batteries exploding, catching fire and injuring sailors, it announced Friday.
The malfunctioning devices have forced at least one aircraft to land, started fires on ships and left sailors with second-degree burns and disfigured faces. The injuries have occurred when the devices were being used, charged or replaced, or when they came into inadvertent contact with metal objects, according to the Navy.
The directive by U.S. Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Pacific Fleet will take effect May 14 and comes as the e-cigarette industry faces increasing scrutiny over the safety of its products.
The U.S. Department of Transportation last year prohibited airline passengers and crew members from carrying battery-powered portable electronic smoking devices in checked baggage, and from using or charging the devices aboard aircraft.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will hold a workshop next week specifically to address battery safety concerns with devices known broadly as electronic nicotine delivery systems.
The FDA's Center for Tobacco Products identified 137 reported incidents of e-cigarette overheating, fires and explosions from 2009 to 2015. The FDA received 20 reports of e-cigarette overheating, fires and explosions in 2016.
"Based on the experience of other FDA-regulated products, it is important to note that adverse experience reporting received is an underestimate of actual events," FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum said in an email.
The Navy's ban prohibits uniformed personnel and civilians from using, possessing, storing and charging the devices. It will remain in effect while the Navy conducts a more thorough analysis on the devices, although Fleet Forces spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Stephanie Turo said there is no timeline for any permanent decision.
The American Vaping Association, which touts the benefits of vapor products for public health, criticized the Navy's move.
"When used and charged properly, vapor products pose no more of a fire risk than any other product that is powered by lithium-ion batteries, like cellphones or laptops," Gregory Conley, president of the association, said in an email to The Virginian-Pilot.
"It is a shame that the Navy made this move without consulting active duty personnel or consumer advocates, as there are many ways this issue could have been addressed without resorting to a blanket prohibition that will only serve to discourage current tobacco users from quitting."
The Navy reported 15 incidents between October 2015 and June 2016 where fires were started or personnel were injured because of the devices, according to the Naval Safety Center. It's unclear if the FDA figures include statistics from the Navy.
The FDA is encouraging those who experience a problem with the devices to report it through its online safety reporting portal. The Naval Safety Center said it had no reports of problems before 2015, but it noted in a September message to the fleet that the devices were growing in popularity among civilians and in the Navy. From 2011 to 2015, e-cigarette use rose from 1.5 percent to 16 percent among high school students, according to the FDA.
In 2014, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington became one of the first ships to embrace the use of e-cigarettes by its crew by designating a smoking area specifically for the devices, away from traditional smokers. Some people use e-cigarettes as part of an effort to wean themselves off cigarettes. Among adults who used e-cigarettes in 2015, 58.8 percent also were current cigarette smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Navy is encouraging sailors to use tobacco-cessation programs that it offers, although vaping advocates fear the Navy is taking away a useful tool.
"By banning ENDS products it forces sailors to maintain their harmful smoking habit, which causes greater harm, destruction, and death when compared to the rare battery incident," Will Cohen, executive director of the non-profit Vape A Vet Project, said in a statement to The Virginian-Pilot. "We are more than happy to provide any and all assistance necessary to allow our sailors to continue using this far safer alternative to smoking deadly cigarettes, improve their lives, health and combat readiness, and save the government time and money."
Ships already deployed will be able to request extensions on removing the devices until their next port visits, according to Fleet Forces. Their sailors won't be required to throw away their devices, but they will have to remove their batteries and properly store them.
Sailors on shore still will be allowed to use the devices on Navy bases, but only in designated smoking areas.
Eight of the incidents recorded by the Naval Safety Center occurred aboard ships or aircraft, and in one incident an aircraft had to return to base because e-cigarette batteries were creating smoke in the cargo section. In one case, a battery melted through the pocket of a sailor in a submarine and ignited after it hit the deck of the torpedo room where he was working, according to a Naval Safety Center narrative of the incident.
In four cases, the failures occurred when a service member was actively using one of the devices, and on two of those occasions the explosion occurred while it was in the user's mouth.
The malfunctioning devices have caught sailors' clothing on fire, inflicting first- and second-degree burns. Those who had devices in their mouths have suffered facial, bodily and dental injuries requiring continued treatment.
In one case, an e-cigarette device exploded while the user was attempting to remove its batteries, burning his hands and fingers. He was hospitalized for two days and spent 14 days on convalescent leave, according to the Naval Safety Center.
Pilot writer Courtney Mabeus contributed to this report.