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An employee sitting at her desk appears to be smoking a cigarette, complete with puffs of smoke when she exhales. When a shocked manager approaches her, she explains that she's using an electronic cigarette and the smoke is vapor. What does an employer do now?
"For the human resource executive trying to address this right now, the best advice is to proceed with caution," says Tom Glynn, Ph.D., director of both the American Cancer Society's Cancer Science and Trends and its International Cancer Control.
FDA regulations are expected by the end of this year, he says, which would provide more consistency in manufacturing of the more than 200 types of e-cigarettes on the market and better insight into health impacts to help employers make informed decisions.
"If you leave the scientific and health realm and get into the human relations realm, that's one of the biggest things the HR person is going to deal with when, say, an employee complains that someone in the office or cubicle next to them is smoking."
Electronic smoking, or vaping, is becoming more prevalent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which this February released study results that show that one in five adult smokers in the United States have tried e-cigarettes, up from one in 10 a year earlier. Introduced to the U.S. in 2007, electronic cigarettes -- battery-operated products that vaporize nicotine, flavoring and other chemicals that are inhaled by the user -- do not fall under FDA regulation of drugs or devices because a decision in 2010 from the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit ruledthat e-cigarettes are not considered therapeutic.
The American Cancer Society, like many organizations, still is waiting to hear more on the safety of e-smoking, Glynn says.
"I would say the American Cancer Society finds them intriguing, and a potential -- and please underline potential -- tool for quitting smoking. But electronic cigarettes are still saddled with a lot of question marks."
While the science is still out on electronic cigarettes (one limited 2009 FDA study showed carcinogens in some of 18 varieties tested) and the legal landscape is developing around e-smoking in public, some companies are electing to snuff out this relatively new product in the workplace before those questions surface, says Steven Noeldner, partner and senior consultant in the total health management specialty practice at global consulting firm Mercer.
"It does come up in almost every one of the programs I'm involved in, especially if we're putting a workplace no-tobacco policy in place or a wellness program," Noeldner says. "It's generally true that most employers that impose non-tobacco use programs usually try to be all inclusive. They do include e-cigarettes."