Under current rules, nothing would stop a senator from sucking on an electronic cigarette while strolling the halls of Congress. No rules prohibit members of the House or congressional employees from puffing on the liquid nicotine devices. Tourists are also free to spend their Capitol Hill visit vaping.
While tobacco smoking is banned in public areas of the Capitol and House and Senate office buildings within 25 feet of their entrances, the prohibitions do not extend to e-cigarettes.
New Senate regulations drafted at the urging of Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., could change that in one wing of the Capitol campus. On April 29, the same day it became illegal to smoke an electronic cigarette inside virtually all public buildings in Chicago, Durbin told CQ Roll Call that the Senate needs to move quickly on the issue. Proponents point out that cities across the country, including New York and Los Angeles, have already enacted similar restrictions.
"The urgency is the fact that the e-cigarette marketing is so successful among children," he said. "They've doubled the percentage of high school students who are using their product, so we need to move, and move quickly."
Teens visiting the nation's capital could be part of that population, according to Durbin — "no question about it."
Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who joined a 2008 push to shutter designated smoking areas in the Hart and Dirksen office buildings, also told CQ Roll Call he wants to see e-cigarette use restricted on campus, though he has never seen anyone vaping on the Hill.
Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., previously indicated he would back a move to restrict the use of electronic cigarettes on Capitol grounds by treating them like more traditional cigarettes. Schumer spokesman Matt House told CQ Roll Call that the minority on the committee is currently reviewing the rule.
Ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he didn't know anything about such a move and declined to comment. Minority committee staff did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Democrats in the House also say they want to crack down on e-cigarettes.
"I see no reason why we ought to treat e-cigarettes any differently than cigarettes," House Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said in an interview in the Speaker's Lobby — once a favorite nicotine haven. "I think they're harmful. It's a delivery system for the drug nicotine, and unfortunately it's being marketed in a way that leaves a lot of young people with the sense that maybe this is a safe alternative."
A spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said the issue is not under discussion at this time.
In the case of traditional cigarettes, the House acted a few years ahead of the Senate in its efforts to limit smoking on Capitol Hill. During the speakership of now-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House shuttered sanctioned smoking lounges, and banned smoking in the ornate Speaker's Lobby. The Pelosi-era regulations have remained in place under Boehner.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement that the minority leader supports efforts by Waxman and Durbin to create e-cigarette regulations that are consistent with those governing the use of regular cigarettes.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., a vocal opponent of e-cigarettes, is also interested in trying to restrict vaping on campus. Capps, who is co-sponsoring a bill that attempts to curb marketing of the product to children, said in an interview that she is currently focused on regulating e-cigarette advertising, but thinks the House should consider a ban.
"The e-cigarettes, I think, are a new phenomenon that we have to take into account particularly as it's marketed to young people."
House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, who holds the gavel on the panel in charge of day-to-day operations of Congress, said she has not heard any complaints on the issue. Miller added that she's never seen an e-cigarette used on campus.
"Maybe somebody's smoking it around me and I just don't realize," she said. "It's just vapor, isn't it?"