E-cigarettes aren't yet federally regulated as tobacco products, but many cities and some states are already moving to include the devices in their smoking bans. Such bans are raising a debate about whether e-cigarettes should be permitted to be used in smoke-free workplaces.
Gary Nolan was a two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker until he switched to e-cigs. Now Nolan, who hosts a libertarian talk show based in Columbia, Mo., freely puffs — or vapes, as it's come to be called — at work.
"I'm in a closed studio," Nolan says. "There are no open windows. I can vape in here, while I'm on the air in fact, and people can walk in and out and not even know it, if they don't see it in my hands."
The devices come in various cigarette or pipelike shapes, and heat a chemical mixture of mostly nicotine and water. They're often billed as a smokeless alternative to tobacco that's gentler to both the smoker and to those around them.
Nolan says he saves 10 minutes out of every hour by vaping at his desk instead of trekking outside to smoke, and he's noticed that other people in his building have made the switch, too.
"They do vape in their offices and in the building," Nolan says. "I walk around with this thing all day long."
What's it like? Nolan says it's satisfying to him and odorless and unobtrusive to everyone he works with.
But there are plenty of people who disagree that e-cigarettes — also known as vape pens — should be allowed in the workplace.
"Smoking is smoking is smoking," says Cynthia Hallett, executive director of the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a group that organized in the 1970s and '80s to support anti-smoking laws in the workplace.
"E-cigarettes are definitely reigniting old debates," says Hallett. "I feel like I'm in a time machine. I'm having a terrible case of deja vu."
As more traditional tobacco companies, such as Altria and Reynolds, invest more in the budding e-cigarette business, Hallett says the rhetoric suggesting that vaping is a more healthful alternative ramps up.
" 'Gee, I can't smell it, so therefore it's not a problem,' should not be your benchmark for determining whether or not e-cigarettes are dangerous," Hallett says.
Effects On Health Are Unknown
In fact, little is known yet about which chemical compounds are in the products and what their health impact might be. In the absence of such information, employers are unsure whether to limit e-cigarette use in the office, says Michael Wood, a senior health benefits consultant for Towers Watson.
"Our recommendation is that employers should exclude e-cigarettes just like they do any other form of tobacco within their policies," Wood says. He doesn't think most employers have policies on e-cigarettes, at least not yet.
The federal government doesn't have a specific policy yet either. The Food and Drug Administration has indicated that it intends to apply the same regulations to e-cigarettes and other inhalable nicotine products that it does to tobacco products, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is starting to look at the health effects of vaping.
Part of the problem in researching the health effects of e-cigarettes is that there are so many different types of similar products that it's hard to do a generalized study, says Tim McAfee, director of the CDC's office on smoking and health.
"We just don't know what's in them, and we don't know how much of what's in them would get out into the environment — but the assumption would be that it would," says McAfee.
It stands to reason, he says, that pregnant women and former smokers should limit their exposure — including in the workplace — to the nicotine in the aerosol vapor of e-cigarettes.
More Research Encouraged
Not everyone in the e-cigarette industry is resistant to the idea of FDA review or regulation.
"I think a big problem is that, where there is an absence of law there's also an absence of understanding and cultural etiquette," says Phil Daman, president of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association.
Miguel Martin, president of Logic, one of the country's biggest makers of e-cigarettes, says he encourages more research about the science.
"We think adult smokers should know the harm impact difference between a combustible-based cigarette and an electronic cigarette," Martin says.
Regardless of where the science and policy come out, Martin says he does not believe e-cigarettes are about to roll back the calendar.
"I don't think you're going to see this rush back to the '80s," he says, "where people are vaping in movie theaters and in planes and while they're visiting their kid at their school." And he doesn't think most employers are going to embrace vaping at work, either.