Workplace smoking bans have been a fact of life for a long time now, and the restrictions have been gradually tightening year by year.
It’s now widely accepted that almost all workplaces are tobacco-free areas, and practically everyone agrees that’s a major improvement.
As far as smoking goes the argument is pretty much settled.
However over the last couple of years a disruptive new technology has become widespread enough that it’s causing discussion and some disagreement among managers, policymakers and employees.
That technology is the electronic cigarette.
Electronic cigarettes are an alternative to smoking; they deliver flavoured vapour, often containing nicotine, by heating and evaporating liquid.
They release no smoke, no ash and usually little smell. However they’re a confusing issue for employers and staff responsible for workplace health and safety.
Although e-cigarettes have been around for a few years now they’re still new enough that the legal situation isn’t very clear, and in some areas it’s changing rapidly.
The laws about vaping in the workplace can vary widely between countries, or even regions within a country – from a total ban to no restrictions at all.
Let’s look at some examples.
In Australia the situation is complicated by the fact e-cigarettes containing nicotine aren’t available at all.
In most states devices and nicotine-free liquid are widely available and nicotine-containing liquid is easy to import for personal use, but in Western Australia it’s illegal to sell any e-cigarette and using them is normally treated like smoking.
That means you won’t be able to vape at work.
In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, the situation is completely different.
The law on smoking in public spaces or the workplace only applies to lit tobacco, and because an electronic cigarette doesn’t contain any tobacco this doesn’t apply.
That means it’s not against the law to use an e-cig anywhere. However business owners or public buildings – and organisations like the National Health Service – can ban vaping on their own property or vehicles, and those bans can often be enforced by law.
If you want to use an e-cigarette in a public place it’s always best to ask if it’s allowed.
The United States has a patchwork of laws across states, counties and cities.
In some jurisdictions there are no restrictions at all on vaping; Missouri is one. In others, such as San Franciso, it’s regulated the same as tobacco and you’re not allowed to vape anywhere you can’t smoke.
So far there’s no law at the federal level, although that could change in the future.
Setting A Policy
If you’re an employer and you’re wondering what to do about electronic cigarette use, the first thing to consider is what you’re trying to achieve.
Are you trying to protect the health of your staff, encourage smoking cessation or present a more professional appearance?
Here are some points to consider.
The reason smoking is now banned by law in workplaces is the hazard second hand smoke presents to other employees – tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, dozens of which are toxic or carcinogenic.
Inhaling these can cause a range of health problems; second hand smoke has been linked with heart disease and cancer.
However electronic cigarettes do not create smoke; while the vapour may look like smoke it’s actually droplets of liquid, mostly propylene glycol and glycerine.
Propylene glycol appears to be safe to inhale; experiments on animals have found no health effects from inhaling even quite high doses, and in fact many hospitals add it to the air supply because it kills bacteria and viruses.
As far as scientists can tell there are no health risks to bystanders from electronic cigarette vapour and, because all the ingredients are quite well understood, there’s no real reason to believe there are any.
That means there’s no justification for banning vaping on health grounds.
It’s definitely legitimate to encourage your staff to stop smoking; non-smokers take fewer days off sick.
Think carefully before banning electronic cigarettes for this reason, though.
Using an electronic cigarette isn’t smoking, and in fact most users have started using them to reduce the number of cigarettes they smoke or give them up altogether.
By forcing vapers to go to the smoking area you might make it less likely they’ll give up smoking; if they need to go outside and stand in the smoking area anyway, some of them are going to decide they might as well smoke.
On the other hand if there are advantages to vaping – such as being allowed to vape inside, either at their normal workplace or in an indoor vaping area – they have an incentive to vape.
It’s worth noting that many anti-smoking groups, such as Action on Smoking and Health in the UK, are opposed to a ban on vaping in the workplace.
Also consider that by requiring vapers to go to the smoking area they will be exposed to second hand smoke.
You may wish to restrict vaping to present a more professional appearance to customers or clients.
If you make this decision consider creating an indoor vaping area for staff to take short breaks, rather than force them to use the smoking area.
This will create an incentive to vape in place of smoking. If this is applied to customer-facing staff it’s probably a good idea to apply it to everyone.
It’s obvious even from these three points that finding an appropriate policy isn’t as simple as just treating vaping the same as smoking.
The main motivation for smoking bans – protecting health – simply doesn’t exist; there’s no evidence that e-cigarette vapour presents any danger to people around the vaper.
There’s also no evidence that treating vapers as smoking will do anything to help people quit.
In fact it’s likely to have the opposite effect, by making people who’re trying to quit or stay off cigarettes spend time around people who’re smoking.
Overall it’s best to follow the recommendations of groups like ASH and permit vaping, whether in a dedicated indoor area or at the normal workplace.