Employers ban vaping as its reputation goes up in smoke

By Jennifer Carsen | HRDive

Experts say large companies are leading the way, adding vaping to workplace tobacco policies.

Reports on the health concerns associated with vaping and e-cigarettes are mixed. While some say the products are less harmful than traditional cigarettes, others link them to serious health consequences such as lung disease, noted Julie Stich, vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP). 

Given the popularity and risk associated with vaping, it’s made an impact on employers. “Vaping and the use of e-cigarettes pose many of the same risks of cigarette smoking to employees and the workplace,” Haynes and Boone Partner Jason Habinsky said in an email to HR Dive. What’s more, workers who choose to use e-cigarette products can put those who share their space at risk as well.

A lack of vaping policies

Vaping has been around for a little while now, said attorney Marissa Mastroianni, an associate at Cole Schotz, but a lot of employers still haven’t created policies.

Stich concurred, noting that only 46% of U.S. employers in a recent IFEBP wellness survey reported having a vaping policy, with a “large chunk” of respondents say they weren’t sure if they did.

But this may soon change. A recent increase in vaping-related illnesses, combined with a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has driven some employers to take a second look at their policies, said Kerry Sylvester, director of product management, wellbeing solutions at HealthAdvocate. In the absence of specific vaping-related laws, company culture and priorities are driving policy. “Many larger employers including Target and Wal-Mart are leading the way by including vaping in their workplace tobacco policies, and many smaller employers are following their example,” she said.

Mastroianni concurred: “There is a trend that employers have been adding vaping to their no-smoking policies,” she said. This is a good thing, according to Habinsky. “[I]t is important that employers review all policies which regulate smoking or other health and safety considerations and modify the scope of such policies to include vaping and e-cigarettes,” he said.

For employers that lack policies putting boundaries on vaping, the first step is to consider any applicable local laws, Mastroianni said. New York and New Jersey, for example, have adopted vaping laws relating to smoke-free workplaces and smoking in public areas. “If a law like that exists in your jurisdiction, you need to comply,” said Mastroianni.

Stich noted that laws in some areas may treat vaping differently than smoking, and employers need to be aware of this (she cited a list of current vaping laws here). Additionally, employers will need to note that vaping and e-cigarette use “may also be prohibited in certain industries and work environments where health and safety may be at risk,” said Habinsky.

Competing priorities

When no specific law applies, however, employers have more flexibility. This is the point at which priorities begin to compete.

“Vaping has been viewed as a substitute for traditional tobacco use both for recreational users as well as by individuals who are trying to cut back or quit smoking,” said Sylvester, speaking to HR Dive via email. “Employers want to support employees who are trying to make positive changes in their health by quitting smoking, but must consider the needs of their entire workforce.”

Employees who want to sit at their desks and vape may say they’re not bothering co-workers, but this is not necessarily true, said Stich. “There can be a residual odor and co-workers can find this annoying.”

Annoyance is not the only thing e-cigarette users may inflict on coworkers. “Vaping can pose challenges for individuals with scent sensitivities, not to mention the concerns related to secondhand exposure to vaping aerosol,” said Sylvester. And, unlike traditional cigarettes, “[a]n e-cigarette can also malfunction or even explode, causing harm to individuals in the workplace,” said Habinsky.

Productivity concerns also factor in. “[E]mployers must also consider the positive or negative impacts on productivity by allowing employees to take vaping breaks away from their workspace versus vaping at their desks,” said Sylvester.

Once employers have updated or created vaping policies, it’s up to them to make sure employees know about the changes. “Employers should also update any related employee training to include a discussion of such prohibitions,” said Habinsky. “Employers should also examine any wellness policies and employee education to ensure the inclusion of such use.”

A call employers need to make

“While supporting employees who want to quit tobacco is a priority, employers must decide if allowing the use of nicotine products that are not [Food and Drug Administration-]approved is beneficial in the short and long term,” said Sylvester. It’s worth noting that “the jury is still out” as to whether vaping and e-cigarettes actually do help people stop smoking regular cigarettes, Stich said.

“It’s kind of tough at the moment,” said Mastroianni, and it’s an area with a lot of nuance. “On the one hand, you want clear air for employees to work and to protect against inhaling secondhand smoke. On the other hand, a lot of people do use vaping and e-cigarettes as a way to stop smoking actual cigarettes.”

Ultimately, said Mastroianni, “employers need to make a judgment call and decide, ‘what’s better for us?'”