Last reviewed 23 June 2021

Vaping has dramatically risen in popularity in recent years and is promoted as an aid to quitting cigarette smoking in the UK. Consequently, employers need to ensure they set out clear policies in order to deal with e-cigarettes in the workplace, particularly as evidence suggests vaping is less harmful to health than smoking. Vicky Powell examines the work-related health implications of these trends and a new Scientific Opinion from the European Commission.

Vaping — how big is it?

According to figures published by the anti-tobacco charity, Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), in October 2020, an estimated 3.2 million adults in Great Britain currently use e-cigarettes, up from 700,000 in 2012.

There are now more ex-smokers (1.9 million) who use e-cigarettes than current smokers (1.2 million). This means that over half (62%) of e-cigarette users are ex-smokers with 38% being current tobacco smokers.

Indeed, Ash says the main reason given by current vapers for use of e-cigarettes is to help them stop smoking.

The law

The law on conventional smoking in workplaces in the UK is clear. In terms of the Health Act 2006, the smoking of normal cigarettes is banned in enclosed or substantially enclosed public places, including workplaces.

In England and Wales, anyone who breaches the smoking ban under the Smoke-free Premises, etc (Wales) Regulations 2007 could face heavy penalties. Employers, managers and those in control of premises need to display No Smoking notices and take reasonable steps to ensure that staff, customers, members and visitors are aware of the law and do not smoke in buildings. Similarly, in Scotland public places and workplaces became smoke-free under the Prohibition of Smoking in Certain Premises (Scotland) Regulations 2006.

However, e-cigarettes fall outside of the legal definition set out by the Health Act 2006 and are not covered by the legal ban on smoking in enclosed workplaces. Therefore, it is up to individual employers to take action and set out a policy on the subject.

Organisations in the UK take a widely varying approach to e-cigarettes. For example, while some London pubs allow for vaping indoors, others don’t. Some UK airports treat e-cigarettes in the same way as smoking, allowing them only in the designated smoking areas outside the terminal, as in the case of Heathrow Airport. In contrast, vaping lounges and e-cigarette coffee shops continue to be popular around the UK. Here, vapers can buy and use their e-cigarettes in a public place without breaking the law, despite the smoking ban having been in place for seven years.

The expert view: vaping is much safer than smoking

The advice from international health authorities is unequivocal: although not without risks, vaping is a much healthier option than smoking.

At the end of 2018, Public Health England (PHE) launched a new Health Harms campaign to convince the UK’s smokers that vaping was better than smoking and a good way to quit. The NHS promotes them as a way to stop smoking, stating that e-cigarettes “carry a small fraction of the risk of cigarettes” as they do not produce tar or carbon monoxide, two of the most harmful elements in cigarette smoke.

In a move which may be helpful to managers responsible for facilitating employee quit-smoking programmes in the workplace, as part of its Health Harms campaign PHE released a film on YouTube highlighting “the devastating harms that come from smoking, and how this can be avoided by switching to an e-cigarette or using another type of quit aid”.

The film featured smoking experts Dr Lion Shahab and Dr Rosemary Leonard, visually demonstrating the high levels of cancer-causing chemicals and tar inhaled by an average smoker over a month, compared to not smoking or using an e-cigarette.

However, research from the American Stroke Association emphasises that, while vaping is less harmful than smoking, e-cigarettes still carry increased risks to health — they are not harmless. Findings indicated that, compared to non-users, vapers had a 71% higher risk of stroke, 59% higher risk of heart attack and 40% higher risk of heart disease.

A recent report sounds a further note of caution. Following a request from the European Commission, which is considering whether it needs to revise the Tobacco Products Directive (2014/40/EU), the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER) provided a Final Opinion on e-cigarettes in June 2021. This focuses on the health impacts of vaping in comparison to non-smoking. The Committee was asked to review the most recent scientific and technical information on e-cigarettes and to study the health effects of vaping, and its role in encouraging people to start or quit smoking.

The Committee found moderate evidence for risks of irritative damage to the respiratory tract of vapers — and those exposed to second-hand smoke — and for long-term systemic effects on the cardiovascular system, although the evidence for e-cigarettes being carcinogenic in the long term was weak to moderate.

It also found strong evidence that nicotine in e-liquids makes e-cigarettes addictive and that the available flavours make vaping more attractive. These facts contributed to the conclusion that the evidence that e-cigarettes actually help smokers to quit is weak, while the evidence that they reduce smoking is weak to moderate.

Formulating a vaping policy

E-cigarettes fall outside the scope of smoke-free legislation, which means that employers can choose whether to allow employees to use them at work or not. However, Acas warns that whatever the policy, employers should be clear about the rules.

In deciding what to do about e-cigarettes in the workplace, it is work acknowledging that they are often used as an aid to stop smoking, so the implications of banning them should be carefully considered. However, you would need to take into account the effects on other members of staff.

Hugh Robertson, Senior Policy Office for Health and Safety at the TUC, said, “We need workplace smoking policies that benefit all the staff. The bottom line is that if vaping helps people quit smoking then we should encourage and support them, but, at the same time, we want our workplaces to be free from all fumes that can potentially make us ill. That is just as much the case with the fumes from e-cigarettes as with other chemicals, especially as the long-term health risks are still unknown.”

An add-on to the existing smoking policy

Acas suggests employers could include a paragraph about e-cigarettes in the existing policy document on smoking, drugs and alcohol, following consultation on any changes with employees and their representatives.

Furthermore, Acas advises that if e-cigarettes are allowed at work, line managers should be aware of who may be using them within their teams.

Employers may want to put up signs or notices in the workplace which make it clear where smoking is allowed (if this is the case) and where it is banned, including rules for conventional cigarette smokers and rules for e-cigarette users.

Although smoking is forbidden within workplace premises, organisations can still make certain areas available at work to be smoking areas. However, the practicalities of e-cigarettes may be challenging for employers.

The TUC supports the idea that separate areas should be made available for users of e-cigarettes away from any outside smoking area.

Hugh Robertson says, “If a worker is using electronic cigarettes to help them give up smoking tobacco then it is not going to help forcing them to go outside in the same area as smokers.”

Non-compliance issues

Your policy should make the following clear.

  • Any unauthorised or excessive taking of smoking or e-smoking breaks will result in disciplinary action.

  • Any smoking of cigarettes or using of e-cigarettes in a prohibited area at work will result in disciplinary action.

  • Smoking in a designated smoke-free public area is a criminal offence which will attract a fine.

Finally, it should be noted that smoking in the workplace is dealt with as a public health matter in the UK, with the Department of Health, not the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as the lead authority in England. (In Wales this is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government and in Scotland it is the responsibility of the Scottish Government.) Local authorities, not the HSE, are responsible for enforcing the legislation.. However, the HSE will support local authority officers in raising employers’ awareness of their responsibilities and in encouraging employers and employees to comply with the law. HSE inspectors will also bring matters of concern to the attention of the employer, for example a failure to display warning notices.

Further information

For detailed information and advice, see your Smoking at Work topic.