Vaping Claims its First Victim – What is Your Workplace Policy?

Source: Diego Vito Cervo - 123RF

Springfield, IL – An Illinois man has died of what the CDC speculates is related to “vaping” (E-cigarettes).

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that vaporize a nicotine solution to replicate smoking.

The number of cases of people reported to the Illinois Dept of Health Services (IDPH) who have used e-cigarettes or vaped and have been hospitalized with respiratory symptoms has doubled in the past week.

A total of 22 people, ranging in age from 17-38 years, have experienced respiratory illness after using e-cigarettes or vaping. IDPH is working with local health departments to investigate another 12 individuals.

Affected individuals have experienced respiratory symptoms including cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Some also experienced vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms worsened over a period of days or weeks before admission to the hospital.

According to the CDC, in many cases, including Illinois, patients have acknowledged to health care personnel, recent use of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-containing products. However, no specific product has been identified in all cases, nor has any product been conclusively linked to illnesses.

The CDC initially announced Wednesday that 153 possible cases of severe lung illness linked to vaping were reported across 16 states in just the past two months. By Thursday, that number had jumped to 193 potential cases across 22 states.

Even though cases appear similar, it is not clear if these cases have a common cause or if they are different diseases with similar symptoms.

According to an AllOne health blog, the World Health Organization (WHO) in December 2013 said that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes, but that they still deliver some toxins.

The U.S. Surgeon General has categorized e-cigs as tobacco products, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to weigh in with regulations, except for e-cigarettes marketed for therapeutic purposes.

First marketed internationally in 2002, there are more than 250 brands of e-cigarettes now available in the U.S., and sales have tripled in a two-year period to approach $2 billion.

What is your policy for e-cigarette use in the workplace?

Many employers are on the fence regarding the use of e-cigarettes in their workplaces. But they may not be able to sit there much longer. “As vaporing becomes more prevalent… employers will be faced with the challenge of contemplating the pros and cons and will need to consider adopting a policy that reflects their position,” according to the Zanesville (Ohio) Times Recorder.

According to USA Today, vaping-related illnesses aren’t the only dangers e-cigarettes pose. At least two Americans have died after their e-cigarettes exploded.

The AllOne blog has the following suggestions for employers:

  • Evaluate your current smoking policy for consistency with state and federal laws. Be aware that in April, 2014 the FDA proposed to extend its tobacco authority to additional tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. “This proposed rule is the latest step in our efforts to make the next generation tobacco-free,” said Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
  • Examine the exact wording and extent of your company’s existing smoking policy and insurance plans. How does your policy define smoking? Policies may not be clear-cut. A policy might state that the company does not hire nicotine users, but some e-cigarettes don’t contain nicotine.
  • Consider adding e-cigarettes to an existing no-tobacco policy. A policy banning e-smoking can be that simple. But be aware of potential legal issues coming at you from both sides. A ban on hiring e-smokers might face a legal challenge for infringement on the e-smokers’ rights. Non-smokers might file a complaint about e-cigarette use in the workplace. How could an employer ban e-cigs if they allow the use of nicotine-infused gum or other prescription medicines at work as tools for smoking cessation?  These are questions you may want to consider or discuss with counsel.
  • Clarify your objective when creating or modifying your workplace smoking policy to address e-cigarettes. Do you want to prohibit the use of tobacco, ban nicotine, or forbid smoke in the workplace? Do you want to ban anything that creates the illusion of traditional cigarette smoking?
  • Know your boundaries. Decide whether e-cigarettes will be completely banned, allowed in smoking areas, allowed in certain approved areas outside of the regular smoking areas, or allowed everywhere inside the workplace.

People who experience any type of chest pain or difficulty breathing after using e-cigarettes or vaping in the weeks or months prior to these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.

Health care providers caring for patients with unexpected serious respiratory illness should ask about a history of vaping or e-cigarette use.