The Newest Clash over Workplace Health

By | June 10, 2014

Increasingly, companies are prohibiting electronic cigarettes at the workplace and including the vapor-emitting products in their anti-smoking policies. April Honore, HR director for The Campagna Center, thinks this is a good thing, and she is unabashed about saying so.

“E-cigarettes give people a false sense of security in my opinion. Users do not feel that they are really smoking,” said Honore, who manages the health and wellness plans for the Alexandria, Va.-based center. “Additionally, with the fruity smells, e-cigarettes could attract an ever larger and younger customer pool. E-cigarettes are becoming cool, which could make smoking cool. I am not a fan.”

E-cigarettes have grown in popularity since they were first made available in the United States in 2006. They are usually made of plastic or metal and resemble an actual cigarette, but they contain no tobacco and don’t require a flame to light. E-cigarettes are battery-powered and convert liquid nicotine into a mist, or vapor, that the user inhales.

Opponents of e-cigarettes point to what they call misleading health claims and industry-sponsored studies that claim the products are safe and effective in helping smokers quit. Proponents say e-cigarettes offer an attractive alternative to smoking—one that some companies are choosing because they believe they are safer than traditional cigarettes and offer an improvement in smokers’ productivity at work. They also claim there is no evidence that links e-cigarettes to cancer.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently regulate e-cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels and waterpipe (also known as hookah) tobacco. But that will soon change. To gain more insight into the health questions and claims surrounding e-cigarettes, the FDA proposed a new rule in April 2014 that would extend the agency’s tobacco authority to cover e-cigarettes and other unregulated tobacco products. The proposal is open for public comment through July 9, and then the FDA will decide on an “appropriate level of regulatory oversight for these products,” according to a press release. “This proposed rule is the latest step in our efforts to make the next generation tobacco-free,” said then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

That’s a step that the American Lung Association supports wholeheartedly.

Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy for the American Lung Association, said she strongly encourages employers to include e-cigarettes in smoke-free policies because of unsafe chemicals contained in the products, such as benzine, formaldehyde and other carcinogens that could be harmful to employees using the products and those in the vicinity that inhale secondhand emissions. Sward encourages employers to work with their employees to help them quit using nicotine products altogether.

“From an employer perspective, the best thing in terms of a healthy and productive workforce is to encourage everyone to become tobacco-free,” she said. “We really encourage employers to include in their benefits package a comprehensive, quit-smoking benefit.”

Some employers consider e-cigarettes an alternative to smoking that is a move in a better direction, said Phil Daman, president of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA), headquartered in Washington, D.C. Daman said many businesses are providing their employees with vaporizers as an incentive to keep them from smoking. He said these companies feel that the vapor products allow for a more productive workforce because those employees don’t have to leave the office to smoke.

“They understand that for those employees who smoke, it is bad for the bottom line. It is bad for their corporate culture,” Daman explained. “We never say as a business that vaporizers are better or safer for your health. We never say that they will help you stop smoking. All we say is they are an alternative to tobacco.”

Daman said a lot of the sudden attention that vaporizers are garnering, including workplace bans, boils down to fear. “People are afraid, and we have to be sensitive to that fear because they do not understand the new technology,” Daman said. “They see vapor and think it is smoke. This is a very revolutionary product, and it creates a lot of jobs. Right now, there are 16,000 vapor shops, so we are talking about billions of dollars in revenue.”

In January 2014, the University of California system went tobacco-free, including “unregulated nicotine devices” such as e-cigarettes. The products have also been banned by the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, Target, Wal-Mart, CVS Caremark Corporation and the United States Air Force.

Bill Andrews, an employment law attorney with GrayRobinson of Jacksonville, Fla., said he is seeing a trend with an increased number of corporations including e-cigarettes in their ban on tobacco products—and enforcing the ban. Andrews said he has a pending case representing a warehouse/distribution center that has a ban on tobacco products and e-cigarettes. A worker was caught using an e-cigarette in the bathroom and was terminated. She filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming she was terminated because she is pregnant, but Andrews said the company is on solid ground.

“It was a clear violation of company policy and the company had a legitimate reason for termination,” he said.

Dawn S. Onley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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