E-cigarettes may be more harmful than we think, researchers have warned in a new study that may cause employers to review their corporate vaping policies.

The findings, published in the journal Thorax, have concluded that vaping disables key immune cells in the lung that keep the air spaces clear of potentially harmful particles, and as a result can boost inflammation in the body.

In July 2016, Public Health England (PHE) published advice for employers on vaping entitled Use of E-cigarettes in Public Places and Workplaces. Advice to Inform Evidence-based Policy Making. The advice said that, in contrast to the known harm from exposure to secondhand smoke, there was at that time no evidence of harm from secondhand e-cigarette vapour and the risks were likely to be extremely low.

However, the new findings have prompted researchers to suggest that while further research is needed to better understand the long-term health impact of vaping on people, e-cigarettes may be more harmful than we think, as some of the effects were similar to those seen in regular smokers and people with chronic lung disease.

In an accompanying podcast to the latest research, lead author Professor David Thickett says: “There’s certainly an agenda to portray e-cigarettes as safe.”

He added that while e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes, they may still be harmful in the long term, as the current body of research is in its infancy and not able to answer that question yet.

He concluded, “I don’t believe e-cigarettes are more harmful than ordinary cigarettes, but we should have a cautious scepticism that they are as safe as we are being led to believe.”

Comment from David Price, wellbeing expert and CEO at Health Assured

With the fast evolution of technology, some workplace policies may become outdated. As such, employers should regularly review, amend and update their policies. Some employers may find that the smoking policies they have do not cover e-cigarettes at all.

Vaping is rapidly on the increase and, according to PHE research, as many as 2.8 million adults use e-cigarettes. This is a significant number, and PHE has issued guidance and recommendations urging employers to bring in e-cigarette policies or incorporate vaping in current policies on smoking within the workplace.

If, as an employer, you decide that you want to introduce policies to control vaping on the work premises within working hours, then you should decide whether you want to treat vaping in the same way as smoking. PHE recommends supporting employees who choose to vape by assigning them a separate vaping area to the smoking area, to prevent passive smoking and so that smokers trying to quit will not be tempted. Whether you choose to introduce a policy for vaping or not, you should consider the views and comfort of all your staff: smokers, vapers, and non-users. Allowing vapers free range may affect the comfort of non-users and may not be practicable in certain workplaces, such as an office.

When making a vaping policy you should consider the following.

  • Make a distinction between smoking and vaping and make sure that the policy sets rules on both practices.

  • Consider bystanders, and non-users and their comfort. Ensure smoking/vaping areas are not in close vicinity.

  • Adapt your policy to limit exposure and uptake of vaping by children, young people or young workers, eg if the role involves working with children your policy may ban smoking and vaping in their view.

  • Conduct fact-finding investigations if you receive allegations of smoking in breach of the workplace policy, as some e-cigarettes can be easily mistaken for cigarettes.

Last reviewed 17 August 2018