In the past decade, the popularity of e-cigarettes has risen sharply, especially since the workplace smoking ban came into effect in 2007. However, their prevalence can leave employers with some tricky questions. Although the legal position seems clear — according to Siobhan Atkin at law firm Shoosmiths, ‘while using e-cigarettes in the workplace is not prohibited and employers do not have to ban them, they equally do not have to agree to their use’ — it still leaves employers wondering what to do for the best.
There are surely few employers who would not want to reduce the incidence of smoking among their employees. Yet smoking intervention does not rank highly in workplace health programmes — our 2014 Global Wellness Survey shows that while health issues such as stress and depression factor top in UK wellbeing programmes, tobacco and smoking rank just eighth. Where help is provided, it’s usually in the form of free or discounted enrolment in a smoking cessation programme, but there are few companies that subsidise nicotine patches or other medication. Only 40 per cent of UK companies say they currently have on-site healthy lifestyle programmes and coaching, including smoking cessation; 28 per cent don’t have anything nor any plans to (versus 21 per cent in Europe).
While nobody argues that e-cigarettes are as harmful as tobacco, the jury is still out on the question of whether or not they pose any risk to health. The World Health Organization has come out in favour of banning e-cigarettes in the workplace, as has the British Medical Association. Both take the view that e-cigarettes expose non-smokers to nicotine and other toxicants, even if the levels have not yet been proven to be harmful.
The conscientious employer should probably be banning e-cigarettes from the workplace, but at the same time should also be taking a more active role than just signposting employees to where they can get help to give up smoking. Topics such as smoking — and more topically now, e-cigarettes — can feel like an overwhelming area for organisations to tackle. However, the cost of providing a cessation programme will probably pay for itself in increased productivity in the workplace, and there is a good chance that the government will fund some of it in the future.
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