Does a newly popular alternative to smoking still come with the risk of lung cancer? Even worse, is your co-worker’s use of e-cigarettes – or “vaping” – potentially dangerous to you?
Using an e-cigarette is commonly called “vaping” – an activity that has increased so much that it was recently named the Oxford Dictionary’s 2014 “word of the year,” as Time reports.
The WebMD site explains that e-cigarettes have become popular because they are seen by many as a so-called “healthier alternative” to smoking tobacco cigarettes. This is because e-cigarettes purportedly contain fewer chemicals and because inhaling nicotine vapor is billed as being less damaging to the lungs than inhaling smoke.
The question for many of us is whether a co-worker’s vaping at the desk, on the assembly line or in the work truck next to us should have us concerned about the impact on our health.
Little Is Known About E-Cigarettes’ Potential Risks
“E-cigarettes may be less harmful than cigarettes, but we still don’t know enough about their long-term risks or the effects of secondhand exposure,” Dr. M. Brad Drummond, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells WebMD.
Because they provide nicotine to users, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wanted to regulate e-cigarettes as drug-delivery devices. However, a federal judge ruled that the agency did not have the authority to do so. The FDA has since issued a proposed rule that would extend the agency’s authority to regulation of the devices.
According to the FDA, e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, so we don’t know:
The potential risks of e-cigarettes when used as intended
How much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use
Whether there are any benefits associated with using these products.
Pros and Cons of Allowing Workers to Vape on the Clock
You might wonder whether your employer can or should ban e-cigarettes at your workplace.
The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) said in February that while 29 states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting smoking in the workplace, most do not specifically include e-cigarettes. Arkansas, New Jersey, North Dakota and Utah include e-cigarettes in their indoor-smoking regulations, as do New York City and Chicago.
The Americans for Non-Smokers’ Rights says the New Jersey, North Dakota and Utah laws could be interpreted to include e-cigarettes.
In the absence of legal restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes in the workplace, employers are free to create their own policies, SHRM says. This could be as easy as adding e-cigarettes to an existing company tobacco-use policy.
“These devices contain nicotine as well as detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals, and prohibiting their use in the workplace eliminates the risk of any complaints from non-smoking co-workers, customers or others annoyed by the vapors,” SHRM says.
According to SHRM, there are some arguments against a workplace ban on e-cigarettes, too.
One argument, SHRM states, is that many people use e-cigarettes as a bridge to quitting smoking. Making it harder for a worker to use an e-cigarette, forcing the worker to go to a designated smoking area or requiring the worker to take a break in order to vape could hinder the worker’s efforts to quit smoking. Additionally, requiring workers to take a break to vape could hurt productivity, while any new restriction on employee activities could hurt morale.
Given the evolving state of the laws pertaining to e-cigarettes, workplace managers should keep up with the issue and regularly re-evaluate their policies to ensure consistency with state and federal laws, SHRM concludes.