Vaping—the use of electronic nicotine delivery systems, sometimes referred to as ‘e-cigarettes’—exploded into the news this fall after a sudden spike in lung illnesses and more than 30 deaths that were linked to the use of vaping products. The medical, legal, and social ramifications around vaping are rapidly evolving—now is the time for your company to review its vaping policies, or if you don’t already have one, to create one.
Many large states, including California and New York, forbid the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products anywhere smoking is prohibited. While employers can set whatever policies they want, those policies must align with state and local laws.
“Vaping certainly has been growing in popularity, especially with younger demographics,” Wilson Jarrell, an employment attorney with Barran Liebman LLP in Portland, Oregon, told The FruitGuys Magazine. “Some [vapers] see it as a slightly healthier alternative to smoking, some use it as a smoking cessation aid, and many feel it is a more convenient or simply novel alternative to smoking.”
In a competitive job market, Jarrel notes, especially in fields such as tech where the workforce skews young and is likely to have a higher percentage of vapers than smokers, some employers might feel tempted to look the other way rather than enforce anti-vaping rules—but there’s a growing body of evidence that vaping may pose serious health risks to both vapers and second-hand vapers.
Growing Risks & Uncertain Benefits
Vaping appears less invasive to co-workers and those nearby, since the devices don’t create smoke. E-cigarettes work by vaporizing a prepared liquid the user inhales through the device, which may look less like an electronic cigarette and more like a USB drive. This makes them difficult, or even impossible, to detect. High school students, for example, have been known to vape in schools or in classrooms undetected.
A growing number of reports are raising alarms about the impact of secondhand exposure to vaping. A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health revealed that the presence of people vaping in a ventilated room exposed non-vapers in the room to impaired air quality and chemical pollutants, including carcinogenic compounds.
As for the idea that vaping helps people quit smoking, and thereby reduces their health risks, the research simply isn’t conclusive. A 2019 British study in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at 886 randomized smokers who were either given e-cigarettes, or older nicotine replacement products such as the nicotine patch. After a year, nearly twice as many vapers had stopped using cigarettes (18% of vapers vs. 9.9% of patch-users), but 80% of them were still vaping. Of the patch-users who stopped smoking, only 9% were still using the patch at the end of the year.
Vaping and smoking were both linked to a similar increase in heart attack risk, according to new research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Nicotine, which is a toxic and highly-addictive substance, is the primary agent in both tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes.
“People need to understand that e-cigarettes are potentially dangerous to your health. You’re exposing yourself to all kinds of chemicals that we don’t yet understand and that are probably not safe,” explains Dr. Michael Blaha, director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease, in 5 Vaping Facts You Need to Know.
It’s Time to Review Your Vaping Policy
If your workplace policies don’t address vaping explicitly, or you haven’t updated your policies in a while, Jarrell advises checking in with a legal expert, since state and local laws are changing rapidly. In September 2019, Massachusetts banned all vape products for four months, and the Trump administration announced that the FDA would consider banning flavored vape products.
Another potential legal wrinkle for employers are individuals who fail workplace drug screenings after using vaping products that contain legally-available CBD (the non-psychoactive medical component of marijuana) to treat conditions like joint pain or anxiety.
“Due to the fact that the relatively new market of CBD products remains fairly unregulated,” Jarrell says, “many of these products do indeed contain enough THC to cause an employee to fail a drug test.” In fact, earlier this year the Associated Press commissioned a lab test of 30 products advertised as CBD vape oils and found that more than a third were misrepresented—in some cases dangerously so.
In Doubt? Treat Vaping like Smoking
Jarrell says he “certainly wouldn’t recommend” that employers allow vaping, or make exceptions, inside the workplace. Even if some employees are using vaping as a smoking cessation aid, he notes, “other employees are often bothered by this, and may well have an adverse reaction to the vapor put off in the air. This could lead to a slew of accommodation requests.”
Based on the growing reports of illness and fatalities linked to vaping, it seems wise to err on the side of caution for the health of all your employees.
Jarrell’s recommendation is to review your policies around smoking—whether you ban it altogether, or allow it only outside or in other designated areas during employee breaks—to make sure they align with local vaping laws. If they do, the simplest approach would be to extend those rules to vaping. If they don’t meet the local vaping laws, they can still give you a place to start to build your own workplace vaping policy that does.
If you’re aiming to promote greater health and wellness within your organization, then adopting policies that encourage people to quit both smoking and vaping is clearly a good idea.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.