Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes or e-cigs, have caused quite a stir since their introduction to the market. While proponents of these battery-charged devices claim they are harmless and a lot safer than traditional cigarettes, critics such as the American Lung Association and Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights argue that electronic cigarettes still emit harmful toxins into the air. Now, employers are deciding whether to allow these devices in the workplace.
Electronic cigarettes feature a small heating element that transforms liquid nicotine into a breathable vapor, which users inhale into their lungs and then release. In addition to nicotine, however, electronic cigarettes also contain glycerin, propylene glycol and nitrosamines, substances that critics say are known to cause cancer. Proponents say that these substances, which are also present in things like toothpaste and asthma inhalers, are present in such small amounts that they pose no danger to users or bystanders. In December 2013, the World Health Organization concluded that electronic cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes but still deliver some toxins.
Amidst all the controversy and conflicting information, U.S. employers are struggling with the idea of allowing electronic cigarettes in the workplace. As of April 2014, 28 states and the District of Columbia have banned smoking at work, and three of those states — Utah, North Dakota and New Jersey — have added electronic cigarettes to the banned list. More than 100 cities, towns and municipalities have banned electronic cigarettes in public places such as restaurants, offices and bars, and the list continues to grow rapidly. Large employers such as Walmart, Target, Home Depot and General Electric have all decided to ban electronic cigarettes in the workplace.
The real controversy comes from the fact that many of these organizations and cities are banning electronic cigarettes because they contain nicotine, which to them makes e-cigarettes the equivalent of the traditional, cancer-causing variety. However, these same organizations do not impose a ban on nicotine gum or nicotine patches. One reason for the difference in treatment is that until very recently, e-cigarettes were not regulated by the FDA like nicotine patches are. In 2014, the FDA announced that it intends to regulate electronic cigarettes not as drugs but as tobacco products, just like regular cigarettes.
Proponents of electronic cigarettes are understandably upset at the FDA's recent ruling, and they cite the fact that no studies have concluded vapors from e-cigarettes are harmful. Still, as a human resources issue, it goes beyond simply the threat of actual harm. HR managers are in the business of keeping employees happy, and there are bound to be complaints from employees witnessing their co-workers release visible vapors into the air around them. The lack of definitive studies on e-cigarettes' potential dangers means HR managers should err even more on the side of caution and treat electronic cigarettes as they do traditional cigarettes. "It seems similar enough to smoking cigarettes that you'd want to stick with whatever policy you have on smoking," says George Boue, head of human resources at Stiles Corporation, a Florida property management firm.
While many of the arguments supporting electronic cigarettes are convincing, the idea of witnessing your co-worker in the adjacent cubicle releasing clouds of "smoke" into the air still makes many people uncomfortable, whether the substance emitted is considered harmless or not.
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