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E-cigarettes in the workplace - smoke and mirrors?

25th Mar 2014
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E-cigarettes are causing a storm. They have been introduced to help people give up smoking and sales have soared over the last ten years. Currently there are 1.3 million people in the UK that use the devices according to Action on Smoking and Health, therefore, employers need to understand how to manage e-cigarettes in the workplace.

From 2016 electronic cigarettes will be licensed as a medicine. Currently they are marketed as a safe way to help stop smoking. Many are designed to look like cigarettes, although some look like a pen.  They vaporise a nicotine solution that replicates smoking tobacco but are not licenced by the Health Act 2006 which governs that.  They do not give off smoke, do not contain tobacco but do contain chemicals.  The British Medical Association states that more research needs to be done to establish the safety of the nicotine replacement devices as some experts have questioned this.  In some countries they are very heavily regulated.

E-cigarettes are not a quit tool, they provide the individual with an alternative to smoking tobacco with the ability to inhale the vapour.  Even if they are safe and whilst it is not illegal to use an electronic cigarette in the workplace, simulating smoking can cause employee disharmony therefore there are important considerations for employers.

Pregnant workers or those who are trying to give up may be particularly concerned about colleagues who use e-cigarettes in the workplace and mimic real smoking.  In this day and age when well being is actively promoted and cigarette smoking in indoor public areas is banned, damage to the professional image of an organisation may be done if employees using e-cigarettes are viewed by customers who come on site. If e-cigarettes are permitted, therefore, they may give off the wrong message.

As a minimum employers should have guidelines that prevent the use of cigarettes in customer facing areas, in the presence of visitors and in catering or food preparation areas.  Whilst many e-cigarettes are odourless, some do have an odour eg cinnamon that may be irritating to colleagues so additional guidelines on odour-free e-cigarettes should be included.  

The potential benefits to employers for allowing the use of e-cigarettes are fewer smoke breaks and fewer health problems related to smoking and time of work.  However, many employers are now starting to ban e-cigarettes totally in the workplace.

If employers are to ban the use of e-cigarettes they must amend an existing no smoking policy and or drugs/alcohol policy to include that fact as well as detail their approach to managing the situation.  If no policy exists, one should be created.  E-cigarettes should be expressly banned in company vehicles, in the workplace and on customer premises.  Any changes to the policy, or development of a new one, needs to be well communicated to the workforce to avoid any misunderstandings. 

Employers should consider providing a separate outdoor shelter for e-cigarette smokers, who are effectively non-smokers, if they provide the same facilities for smokers.  After all it would not be fair to let these workers to share the same facilities as those who are smoking cigarettes.  The number of smoking breaks allowed should be documented in a policy linked to the disciplinary policy for abuse of this privilege.

It is a business decision of whether an employer decides to allow the use of e-cigarettes or ban them.

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