Employers need to think carefully how they manage e-cigarettes in the workplace

This month (October) is “Stoptober”, when many employees will turn to e-cigarettes as a way to help them quit. But whether or not to allow “vaping” in the workplace can be a tricky issue for employers.

Last month it was all about grinding through a September “Dryathlon” to raise money for cancer research. Next month it’ll be time for “Movember”, highlighting men’s health. And this month, October, is of course “Stoptober”, where the focus is all about quitting smoking.

Whatever you may feel about the tendency these days to give months a specific, often health-related, theme, there’s no getting away from the fact such campaigns can catch the public imagination and will often be a handy “hook” for health promotion campaigns.

And, according to latest statistics from Public Health England, “Stoptober”, for one, has been effective.

Out of the 2.5 million smokers who made a quit attempt during last year’s campaign, 500,000 people (or 20%) were successful – the highest recorded success rate and up from just 13.6% six years ago.

This increase reflected the high number of people using quitting aids, said PHE.

In 2015, for example, just over a million people (1,027,000) used an e-cigarette in a quit attempt, while around 700,000 used a licensed nicotine replacement product such as patches or gum. In addition, over 350,000 people used their local stop smoking service in 2015 to 2016.

This is all, at one level, highly laudable. But, particularly around the use of e-cigarettes, potentially it poses a problem for employers.

Why? Because, first, medical opinion currently seems somewhat divided as to the benefits, or not, of “vaping” or using an e-cigarette and, second, because e-cigarettes pose a challenge in terms of how employers should treat them.

To look at the differing opinions, first.  Back in August last year, PHE came to the conclusion, at the time somewhat controversial, that vaping is 95% safer than smoking.

A recent study from the medical research group the Cochrane Collaboration, has also concluded that electronic cigarettes can be effective in helping smokers kick the habit and do not appear to pose serious side-effects in the short- to mid-term.

And study from academics at University College, London published in the British Medical Journal has suggested e-cigarettes can increase success rates for smokers who are attempting to quit.

But recent research presented at the European Society for Cardiology has also suggested that a typical vaping session can cause similar effects to the main heart artery as smoking a cigarette.

Then there’s the question of how e-cigarettes should be treated in the workplace. Should employers simply bundle them into their existing smoking policy, and therefore risk making it harder for employees who are trying to give up through the use of e-cigarettes?

Or should they treat them completely separately and, if so, how? Should vaping be allowed at the employee’s desk and in meetings, for example? In the office canteen? Or only in a separate room? Or only outside?

The careful navigation required here was recently highlighted in research by the E-Cig Review Site website which argued that more than two thirds (76%) of the UK public feel e-cigarette smokers should not be allowed extra “vape breaks”.

More than half also felt no special “vaping area” should be provided and almost two thirds said they would feel annoyed if someone vaped at their desk, with 61% believing vaping should still be classed as smoking.

To try to help employers, PHE back in the summer published new framework advice for businesses and employers to help them create their own policies on the use of e-cigarettes, of which it estimated there are now an estimated 2.8 million users in the UK.

This set out five key principles for an approach based on our current knowledge of e-cigarettes, namely:

  • Make clear the distinction between vaping and smoking.
  • Ensure policies are informed by the evidence on health risks to bystanders.
  • Identify and manage risks of uptake by children and young people.
  • Support smokers to stop smoking and stay smoke-free.
  • Support compliance with smoke-free law and policies.

As Professor Kevin Fenton, national director of health and wellbeing at PHE, said at the time: “The evidence is clear that vaping is much less harmful than smoking and that e-cigarettes are helping many smokers to quit.

“This new framework will encourage organisations to consider both the benefits and the risks when developing their own policies on e-cigarettes.

“Different approaches will be appropriate in different places, but policies should take account of the evidence and clearly distinguish vaping from smoking.

“In contrast to the known harm from exposure to second-hand smoke, there is currently no evidence of harm from second-hand e-cigarette vapour and the risks are likely to be extremely low. There is also no evidence so far that e-cigarettes are acting as a route into smoking for young people,” he added.

The conciliation service ACAS has also published useful guidance on this area. This concedes some employers do see vaping as a useful tool to encourage smokers to quit smoking, while others simply prefer to bundle its use into their existing no-smoking policies.

When drawing up a policy and approach for this area, it is important to consider issues such as whether the vapour is going to be irritating to other employees, especially there is little evidence as yet as to the effects of passive consumption of e-cigarette vapour on human health.

The fact e-cigarettes can look similar to conventional cigarettes can mean consideration needs to be given to perception or reputation issues, especially in organisations where employees will be dealing with the public.

Similarly, consideration needs to be given as to whether, if you do allow vaping at work, you also allow e-cigarettes to be smoked within a team situation.

If you decide banning e-cigarettes is the best approach, you may need to consider whether this is going to be potentially harmful to employees struggling to stop smoking.

This is especially the case if you decide to set up a e-smoking area in, or even near, your designated smoking area.

The lure of the smell and the fact e-smokers will be around conventional smokers could in this scenario make it much harder for people who are trying to give up. 


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