E-cigarettes light up potential issues for employers

The e-cigarette has been rising in popularity since its invention in 2003 but over the last few years they have become commonplace, with an estimated 2.1 million e-cig users in the UK alone.

The devices do not fall within the Health Act 2006 and therefore their use is not prohibited or restricted by legislation as with real cigarettes. This means employers have to adopt their own stance on how to deal with the devices.

A complete ban on e-cigarettes?

A policy that bans e-cigarettes in the same way as nicotine cigarettes has already been adopted by some of the UK’s largest employers. The advantages of a complete prohibition may be:

  • A policy that is easier to enforce and avoids any misunderstanding – banning both types of cigarette avoids any ambiguity, is easier to implement and avoids uncertainty as to what type of cigarette an employee may be using;
  • Avoids vapours – although e-cigarettes do not always contain nicotine and therefore sometimes do not emit any harmful substance, most devices still emit a vapour which may prove to be a distraction or annoyance for fellow colleagues;
  • Working environment – consider the effect that e-smoking in the office might have on the working environment generally, and if employees are in client-facing roles, how this might affect your professional image.

Allowing e-cigarettes in the workplace?

An alternative approach for an employer is to allow the e-cigarettes, either outright or subject to certain restrictions. The advantages of making an allowance may be:

  • There is no harm done – the devices are not meant to be harmful and are proven to be useful in helping smokers reduce smoking or quit altogether;
  • Healthy workers – allowing employees to use the devices as a stop smoking aid will show employees support in quitting and make for a more healthy and motivated workforce; 
  • Increased efficiency – allowing e-cigarette use at an employee’s work station, rather than asking employees to step outside, will mean less breaks and potentially an increase in productivity. Less breaks for smokers may also prevent non-smoking staff becoming irritated at the absence of their colleagues in order to smoke.

Practical steps

It is important that whatever approach an employer decides to take regarding e-cigarettes, it is clear and communicated to all staff, preferably by a written policy.

If deciding to allow use of electronic cigarettes, a policy will still be necessary to set out any limitations, for example prohibiting their use with clients and customers, or when operating machinery. Any policy should also consider health and safety issues.

It is wise for employers to keep abreast of the research and developments surrounding e-cigarettes. The UK intends to licence e-cigarettes as a medicine from 2016 which may have an effect on how they should be treated in public places and working environments. Employers will benefit from agreeing an approach at an early stage and communicating it to all staff to prevent any issues arising in the future.

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