To vape or not to vape in the workplace?
Yesterday, the World Health Organization called for a ban on the use of e-cigarettes indoors, as well as a range of other restrictions on their sale and marketing. The UK Government has instantly, and predictably, rejected the proposal. E-cigarettes can be a dilemma for trade union representatives with many seeing them as a safer alternative to tobacco and others saying that using them (vaping) should not happen in the workplace.
In recent years electronic cigarettes have become more popular with a threefold increase in sales in 2013. These are not covered by the legal ban on smoking in enclosed workplaces but it is important that employers have a policy on their use.
There sale is unregulated and there is very little evidence as to their safety. Also the ingredients and quality of electronic cigarettes can vary considerably.
Nevertheless, it is likely that they are less harmful to users than smoking tobacco as it is the smoke from burning tobacco that poses the most risk to health, rather than the nicotine. That does not however mean that they are safe. It can take many years for cancers and other lung disorders to develop and be recognised. Some research indicates that electronic cigarettes do in fact cause lung damage, but whether this is significant or can cause cancer is not yet known. However because quality varies considerable there is no consistency in the pollutants that electronic cigarettes emit. Also studies do indicate that over half of the vapours do get to the lungs. So although they might be the lesser of the two evils, they may not be benign. WHO experts also warn the products might pose a threat to adolescents and the foetuses of pregnant women.
It is likely that electronic cigarettes can help existing smokers quit tobacco cigarettes, although evidence from the USA indicates that many users are new smokers who were not previously addicted to nicotine. The World Health Organisation says there should be no claims that the devices can help people quit smoking until there is evidence to support this.
It is also claimed that they are more likely to appeal to young people and some manufacturers seem to be targeting that market through the use of colours and flavours such as bubblegum and candy floss. The WHO has said that sales to children should stop, while fruit, candy or alcoholic-drink style flavours should be banned too, and sales of electronic cigarettes from vending machines should be heavily restricted.
According to the WHO legal steps should be taken to end the use of e-cigarettes indoors – both in public spaces and in work places. So, given the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes, what should the view of unions be?
The TUC strongly recommends that unions should negotiate that electronic cigarettes are subject to the same general restrictions in the workplace as tobacco. They should not be used in any indoor place. This is not just because the risk to others is unknown, but also because it can be confusing if people are seen to be “smoking” what can look like a cigarette. This undermines the smoking ban.
We do however support the idea that separate areas should be made available for users of electronic cigarettes away from any outside smoking area. If a worker is using electronic cigarettes to help them give up smoking tobacco then it is not going to help forcing them to go outside in the same area as smokers.
Unions should also welcome any attempts by employers to promote the use of electronic cigarettes for existing smokers to help them give up, in the same way as they sometimes help subsidise nicotine patches or chewing gum, but this should be on the understanding that they only use them when they would normally smoke a cigarette and not anywhere that smoking is restricted.
A pragmatic approach like this should hopefully satisfy those who do not want their colleagues “vaping” next to them, and also hopefully support those who want to use e-cigarettes to help them kick tobacco.