Should E-cigarettes Be Allowed In The Workplace?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Leonardo DiCaprio won’t be vaping at next year’s Golden Globe awards. The actors caused a stir in January when they puffed on electronic cigarettes during the ceremony. But as of April 19, e-cigarette use was banned in bars, restaurants and other public spaces throughout Los Angeles. E-cigarettes, battery-charged devices shaped like cigarettes or cigars, have a heating element that vaporizes a liquid nicotine solution, which the users, or “vapers,” inhale into their lungs and then puff, producing an odorless water vapor that e-cigarette advocates say is harmless to bystanders. In fact if vapers hold their breath for a few seconds after inhaling, they emit no vapor at all. But critics of the $2-billion-a-year e-cigarette industry, like the American Lung Association and the non-profit Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, say that preliminary studies show that dangerous toxins could be present in the exhaled vapor. Along with nicotine, the liquid contains propylene glycol, glycerin and nitrosamines. E-cigarette advocates say that these chemicals have proved to be harmless. Propylene glycol and glycerin are present in toothpaste and asthma inhalers, and nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens, are in such tiny amounts that they pose no danger, say proponents. E-cigs also contain cadmium, lead and nickel, in very small doses. But, says Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy at the American Lung Association, “the bottom line is we don’t know enough about these products.” A December 2013 World Health Organization paper concedes that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes, but that they “still deliver some toxins,” while a study in the Journal of Public Health Policy said “a preponderance of the available evidence shows [e-cigarettes] to be much safer than tobacco cigarettes and comparable in toxicity to conventional nicotine replacement products.” In the face of inconclusive evidence and a dearth of definitive studies, employers are wrestling with whether to allow vaping in the workplace. Some 28 states and the District of Columbia ban smoking at work, but only three—New Jersey, Utah and North Dakota—have added e-cigarettes to those bans. Meantime, 150 municipalities have banned vaping in public spaces including restaurants, bars and offices. The list is rapidly expanding. In January, only 100 cities and towns, including Seattle and Boston, had vaping bans. Just today, broad bans are taking effect in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago. As city vaping bans are spreading, employers are rapidly imposing them too. Wal-Mart Stores, the largest private employer in the U.S., with 1.3 million workers, has decided to lump e-cigarettes in with traditional cigarettes, banning it in its offices and stores. Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove says the company views e-cigarettes as tobacco products. General Electric, which has more than 100,000 workers in the U.S., and Target, with 361,000 U.S. employees, and Home Depot with 331,000 employees all have the same policy as Wal-Mart. But one thing that’s striking about company, state and municipal bans, which view e-cigarettes as equivalent to cancer- and emphysema-causing, tar- and smoke-emitting traditional cigarettes: they consider e-cigs to be tobacco products because they contain nicotine, which is derived from tobacco. But the companies don’t ban nicotine patches, lozenges or gum. In fact Wal-Mart gives those away for free as part of its smoking-cessation plan for employees. To some extent, the differing treatment comes from the fact that the FDA already regulates nicotine substitutes as drugs. E-cigarettes, which have been available in the U.S. since around 2006, are not regulated at all. Finally last week the FDA announced it intended to regulate e-cigs not as drugs but as tobacco products, like traditional cigarettes. The agency has proposed banning their sale to minors, and to further study their safety. E-cigarette opponents lamented the FDA’s announcement because it said nothing about restricting marketing to children or regulating the liquid. E-cigarettes come in flavors like watermelon and Bavarian cream. For this piece, I reached out to a dozen large private employers. Only four got back to me. The Wall Street Journal reported in January on a half dozen employers, most of whom have vaping bans: Along with Wal-Mart, CVS Caremark forbids it in its corporate offices and Starbucks bans vaping among both customers and workers. United Parcel Service, which charges non-union tobacco users $150 extra in monthly insurance premiums, has a striking policy: it makes e-cigarette users pay the higher price as well, despite no evidence that vaping causes cancer or emphysema. McDonald’s was the only exception the Journal found. At least as of January, the company allowed both employees and customers to vape in stores and offices. Through a new industry group, the American Vaping Association, I reached one employer who not only permits vaping, she pays for it. Cheryl Dooley, 56, CEO and president of Ebsco Spring Company, a Tulsa, OK-based maker of springs used in industrial machinery, was a hardened smoker who put away two packs a day. She tried, and failed, to quit 15 times. But after doctors found a blood clot in her lungs, she tried vaping, which finally got her off cigarettes. “I realized that even bad addicts can quit with e-cigarettes,” she says. Since more than a third of her 75 employees smoked, she decided to take an unconventional step: She bought 28 vaping kits for $100 each and gave them to workers for free. To get started with e-cigarettes, vapers have to buy a battery, charger, nicotine-liquid cartridges and a vaping pen. The kits can cost as little as $30 but good ones run $100 or more. So far, Dooley says that half of the smokers at Ebsco have used the kits to quit smoking. She says she wasn’t trying to boost productivity or save on health care costs. “Our health care costs are crazy no matter what,” she says. “I wanted people to know that it’s possible to quit.” But it’s doubtful that other employers will follow suit. Instead, says George Boue, head of human resources at Stiles Corporation, a property management company in Fort Lauderdale and member of the discipline panel at the Society for Human Resource Management, the trade group recommends that as long as there are no definitive studies or FDA ruling on the safety of e-cigarettes, employers should treat them like traditional cigarettes. At Stiles, there was no company policy until three months ago when an employee in a satellite office complained about a colleague vaping, claiming it irritated her allergies. At the same time, Boue got a request from a reporter to discuss the issue. He realized that the company had better make a vaping rule. Though studies have yet to prove that inhaling second-hand vapor causes health problems, and none have suggested that e-cigarette vapor promotes an allergic reaction, acknowledges Boue, “you’re still releasing a foreign substance into the indoor environment.” Employees who see a vaper puffing what looks like smoke are bound to complain, he says. “In the HR environment you want to make as many people happy as you can,” he adds. “It seems similar enough to smoking cigarettes that you’d want to stick with whatever policy you have on smoking.” What about Dooley’s idea that vaping will help smokers quit? Though studies are also thin on proof that e-cigarettes are effective smoke-cessation devices and some opponents say they lure young people to become smokers, advocates insist that e-cigarettes are an important tool for getting addicts to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, which kill some 480,000 people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Secondhand smoke causes an additional 42,000 deaths, says the CDC. Not to mention a reported $150 billion a year in productivity loss from premature death. Advocates point to a 2013 study by Drexel University public health professor Igor Burstyn who found that e-cigarette vapor caused no harm to vapers or bystanders. What should companies do? While I find some of the pro-vaping arguments convincing—the vapor is odorless and I don’t worry about inhaling trace elements of drugs when I’m already breathing in bus fumes and car exhaust, and no study has proved that vapor will make me sick—I understand that watching colleagues puffing out a plume of what looks like smoke will make people uncomfortable. Though I find hardcore smoker Dooley’s decision to give vaping kits to her employees to be generous, I also relate to the distrust people feel of big cigarette makers like Lorillard, Altria and Reynolds, which are all now in the e-cigarette business, and it seems to me that nicotine addiction can’t be a good thing to promote. Stiles of SHRM probably has it right: “Any HR professional who has to deal with keeping people happy, understands why you would want to restrict e-cigarettes in the workplace.”
Original author: Halley
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