Point/Counterpoint Should You Ban E-Cigarettes in the Workplace?

Two experts from SHRM’s HR Knowledge Center debate the issue.

Mar 23, 2015
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Yes

It’s time to pull the plug on e-cigarettes at work.

They’re touted as a safer alternative to cigarettes and an aid for helping people kick the habit. So electronic or e-cigarettes are a great alternative for the workplace, right? Perhaps not. Although they’ve been available internationally for about a dozen years and in the U.S. for eight, there’s a lot we still don’t know about these products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has questions about how safe they are for both the people who use them and those around them. That’s why it’s calling for additional testing and regulation.

Meanwhile, most city and state smoking ordinances don’t address e-cigarettes, leaving employers to fend for themselves in developing policies. According to The Wall Street Journal, several employers, including CVS Caremark, Starbucks and UPS, have already decided to include e-cigarettes in their smoking bans. Should you do the same? That’s for each employer to decide, but given the growing popularity of the devices, it’s best to address the issue sooner rather than later.

There’s a strong case to be made for prohibiting the devices. Consider the following:

• While there is not yet definitive research on the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes, a report released in January 2015 by the California Department of Public Health identified at least 10 chemicals, including nicotine, known to cause birth defects and cancer that can be found within their vapors. Other chemicals in the products can be toxic to the liver.

• E-cigarettes emit odors that may be offensive and unpleasant for other employees and can affect those with allergies.

• Research is inconclusive on whether e-cigarettes help individuals stop smoking. Meanwhile, nicotine is well-known to be an addictive chemical that can cause increased blood pressure and other cardiovascular effects. Thus, far from weaning people off of nicotine, e-cigarettes may actually encourage a new group of employees to become addicted to it.

• While e-cigarettes are not currently addressed under many no-smoking ordinances, that is liable to change. Permitting their use today could make it more difficult to enforce any local or state bans tomorrow. It also undermines an employer’s ability to enforce a ban on other kinds of smoking.

• The heating element and batteries in e-cigarettes could cause a fire hazard, depending on the workplace.

Over the years, employers have realized significant savings in health insurance premiums and other costs by offering smoking-cessation programs and premium incentives. Given all the unknowns and possible risks of e-cigarettes, these devices have the potential to do far more harm than good—and thus may cause their own health problems that affect your company’s bottom line. Don’t let your savings disappear in a puff of vapor.

—Edward Yost, SHRM-SCP, is manager of quality and training for SHRM’s HR Knowledge Center.

No

There is no business case for banning e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes—smokeless, battery-powered devices that provide users an inhaled dose of a vapor containing nicotine—offer an attractive alternative to smoking. Many companies are choosing to allow their use because they believe these devices are safer than traditional cigarettes and offer an improvement in the productivity of smokers at work.

Employers have many valid reasons to allow e-cigarettes, including:

Greater productivity. Employees who take long breaks to smoke are less productive. A 2013 study in the journal Tobacco Control estimated that smoke breaks cost employers roughly $6,000 per employee per year. By contrast, those who use e-cigarettes won’t need to take a break to go outside. They can light up at their desk and keep right on working.

Helping employees quit smoking. Many people who rely on e-cigarettes in the workplace do so because they are genuinely trying to stop smoking the real thing. E-cigarettes may help workers smoke fewer cigarettes and therefore could prevent the health problems associated with smoking, reducing companies’ health care costs. Smoking kills approximately 480,000 people a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and secondhand smoke causes an additional 42,000 deaths. That translates to approximately $150 billion a year in lost productivity from premature death.

Improved morale. Employees who smoke may resent not being able to do something they consider to be at least a step in the right direction, just as nonsmokers begrudge the fact that smokers take numerous smoke breaks during the day. Allowing the use of e-cigarettes could help address both issues, increasing morale for everyone.

No evidence to prove harm. As a 2010 study in the Journal of Public Health Policy stated, “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 addition, a 2013 study by Drexel University public health professor Igor Burstyn found that e-cigarette vapor caused no harm to vapers or bystanders.

Policy consistency. If other nicotine replacement products are allowed at work, it’s counterintuitive to single out e-cigarettes for a ban. Some large companies actually provide free nicotine patches, lozenges and gum as part of a smoking-cessation plan. Why exclude the newest addition to the toolbox?

Before deciding to limit or ban any activity, employers should weigh the costs and benefits and make sure they understand applicable state and local laws. It’s also a good idea to watch for new laws or studies concerning e-cigarette use. Because prohibiting certain legal activities can affect employee morale and productivity, any ban should be based on a legitimate business case. In this instance, there simply isn’t one.

—Margaret Fiester, SHRM-SCP, is operations manager for SHRM’s HR Knowledge Center.

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