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Electronic cigarettes are often billed as a smokeless alternative. They're supposed to be gentler to both the smoker and those around them. The devices come in various cigarette- or pipe-like shapes and heat a mixture of nicotine and water. They are not yet federally regulated. Many cities though, and some states, are moving to include e-cigarettes in their smoking bans. And NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports there is also debate about whether e-cigs should be banned at work.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Gary Nolan was a two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker until he switched to e-cigarettes. And now Nolan, who hosts a libertarian talk show out of Columbia, Mo., freely puffs, or vapes, as he puts it, at work.

GARY NOLAN: I'm in a closed studio. There are no open windows, so you can imagine how tight this room is. And 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.

NOGUCHI: And were you able to smoke in there before?

NOLAN: No.

NOGUCHI: He says he saves 10 minutes out of every hour by vaping at his desk and not trekking outside to smoke, and he's noticed six or seven other people in the building have made the switch, too.

NOLAN: They do vape in their offices and in the building. I walk around with this thing all day long.

NOGUCHI: And no one's ever said anything to you at work.

NOLAN: No.

NOGUCHI: What it like? Nolan says it's satisfying to him and odorless and unobtrusive to everyone he works with.

NOLAN: Well, while you were talking I did it. You couldn't hear it. Nobody could see it and it's harmless.

NOGUCHI: But there are plenty of people who disagree that e-cigarettes, or vape pens, should be allowed in the workplace.

CYNTHIA HALLETT: Smoking is smoking is smoking.

NOGUCHI: Cynthia Hallett is executive director of the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, a group that organized in the 1970s, supporting anti-smoking laws in the workplace.

HALLETT: E-cigarettes are definitely reigniting old debates. I feel like I'm in a time machine. I'm having a terrible case of deja vu.

NOGUCHI: As more traditional tobacco companies, like Altria and Reynolds, invest more in the budding e-cigarette business, Hallett says the rhetoric that vaping is a more healthier alternative ramps up.

HALLETT: 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.

NOGUCHI: And in fact, little is known yet about which chemical compounds are in the products and what their health impact might be. Michael Wood is a senior health benefits consultant for Towers Watson. He says in the absence of such information, employers are unsure whether to limit e-cigarette use in the office.

MICHAEL WOOD: Our recommendation is that employers should exclude e-cigarettes just like they do any other form of tobacco within their policies.

NOGUCHI: Do you think most employers have a policy on e-cigarettes?

WOOD: Not yet.

NOGUCHI: Nor does the federal government. The Food and Drug Administration declared its intention to regulate e-cigarettes and other inhalable nicotine products, as it does to tobacco, and the Centers for Disease Control is starting to look at the health effects of vaping. Tim McAfee is director of the CDC's office on smoking and health. He says part of the problem is that there are so many different types of similar products it's hard to do a generalized study.

TIM MCAFEE: 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.

NOGUCHI: McAfee says it stands to reason that pregnant women and former smokers should limit their exposure to the nicotine in the aerosol vapor of e-cigarettes, including where they work. Not everyone in the e-cigarette industry is resistant to the idea of FDA review or regulation. Phil Daman is president of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association.

PHIL DAMAN: I think a big problem is that where there is an absence of law there's also an absence of understanding and cultural etiquette.

NOGUCHI: And Miguel Martin, president of Logic, one of the country's biggest makers of e-cigarettes, says he encourages more research about the science.

MIGUEL MARTIN: We think that adult smokers should know the harm impact difference between a combustible-based cigarette and an electronic cigarette.

NOGUCHI: Martin says regardless where the science and policy come out, he does not believe e-cigarettes are about to roll back the calendar.

MARTIN: I don't think you're going to see this rush back to the '80s where people are vaping in movie theaters and in planes and, you know, while they're visiting their kid at their school or whatever what used to be.

NOGUCHI: And he doesn't think most employers are going to embrace vaping at work. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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