Man vaping in office. Photo: Mauro Grigollo
To vape or not to vape at work?
Last month the Government issued a Five Year Tobacco Control plan for England. Several newspapers reported that this proposed that routine bans of vaping products at the workplace or in public spaces should cease, in order to “maximise the availability of safer alternatives to smoking”. However the plan said no such thing. There is very little about the workplace in the Government plan and it simply states that employers should continue to encourage workers to stop smoking.
Instead the journalists seem to have picked up on advice by Public Health England (PHE) last year that was ambivalent on the issue. It said (rightly) that employers should differentiate between tobacco smoking and vaping, but also recognised that vaping could expose others to irritants and that could be a particular problem for asthmatics and others with lung issues. ACAS guidance on the issue tends to come down on the side of not allowing vaping in the workplace, although it does suggest that it might be considered if it is in a separate area. The British Medical Association (BMA) has called for a ban on electronic cigarettes in public places and states that their use ‘normalises’ smoking.
What is clear is that, as vaping is becoming more popular, this is becoming an issue of growing conflict in the workplaces. Although it is not unlawful to use electronic cigarettes in enclosed public areas or workplaces, that does not mean that it a good thing and unions should seek to negotiate smoking policies that continue to encourage smokers to quit, but which also protect non-smokers from being exposed to unwanted or unpleasant fumes.
There is no question that vaping is much safer that smoking tobacco, but a statement last year by PHE and a dozen other bodies stated “All the evidence suggests that the health risks posed by e-cigarettes are relatively small by comparison but we must continue to study the long-term effects.” So no-one is saying that vaping is safe for the user, only that it is probably a lot safer than smoking cigarettes. (The Royal College of Physicians suggested last year that it was 95% safer). For that reason the TUC has always supported employers encouraging existing smokers to switch to vaping or other nicotine replacement systems if they cannot, or don’t want to, give up nicotine.
But that does not mean accepting vaping at work. After all, it is not just the people who are vaping we have to think about, but everyone in the workplace. In its advice on smoke-free workplaces, which was issued three years ago, the TUC said
“The TUC strongly recommends that unions should ensure that electronic cigarettes are subject to the same restrictions in the workplace as tobacco. They should not be used in any indoor place. This is 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 tobacco. This undermines the smoking ban.
However employers and health campaigners may wish to promote the use of electronic cigarettes for existing smokers to help them give up, on the understanding that they only use them when they would normally smoke a cigarette and not anywhere that smoking is restricted.”
That still makes sense, although it is also a good idea for separate areas to be made available for users of electronic cigarettes away from any outside smoking area. If a worker is using electronic cigarettes because they want to give up smoking tobacco then it is not going to help forcing them to go outside in the same area as smokers.
We need workplace smoking policies that benefit all the staff. The bottom line is that if vaping helps people quit smoking then we should encourage and support them, but, at the same time, we want our workplaces to be free from all fumes that can potentially make us ill. That is just as much the case with the fumes from e-cigarettes as with other chemicals, especially as the long term health risks are still unknown.