A reported 1.3m people in the UK currently use e-cigarettes. Also known as “personal vaporisers”, which sounds like something straight out of Start Trek and not something you would want to tell the chap at Airport Security you had in your pocket, these give users the nicotine hit that they crave, apparently without exposing them to the cocktail of other harmful chemicals contained in ordinary cigarettes.

Currently, these e-cigarettes are not regulated in the UK, and are not covered by the 2006 Health Act smoking ban because they are not “smoked”. However, some businesses, including hospitals, have banned their use indoors because a blanket ban on anything cigarette-like is easier to enforce.

However, where it starts to get rather more interesting is the problems that these “personal vaporisers” can create for employers.

Firstly (and most obviously), should their use be allowed in the workplace? Legally, employees are perfectly free to use them indoors. However, would it look especially professional if clients or customers can see the employees puffing away on e-cigarettes? We have to bear in mind that even though the “e-liquids” which create the vapour are manufactured to taste fruity, minty or woody, more like something you would rub in your hair, they do still contain a concentrated toxin – remember that even cyanide smells like almonds.  Do would you want that sort of stuff rolling around in your employees’ desks?  Would pregnant colleagues be comfortable sitting near someone who was exhaling nicotine vapour into the air even if nicely scented?  Is there a risk that allowing employees to use e-cigarettes indoors “normalises” smoking, which is something that most employers would not want to be seen to be doing?

What about the smoking areas? If e-cigarette users are made to use them outside, should they be given a separate space so that they do not have to stand near people smoking actual cigarettes? It would appear rather harsh if people using them as a stop-smoking aid have to do so next to people using the very product which they crave. Employers are under a duty to promote the health and safety of their employees, so does this include encouraging people to switch from normal cigarettes to electronic ones?  And then banning them?

The answers to all these questions will vary from employer to employer. There are no definitively right answers.  However, what all employers should consider is amending their existing policies regarding smoking to cover the use of e-cigarettes one way or the other. Employees should be made aware of the policies and warned that breach of such policies can result in disciplinary action being taken. This should help prevent the issue of e-cigarettes becoming a real drag…