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E-cigarettes prompt new questions for health-focused employers

A sign posted at The Reel Theater on Overland prohibits moviegoers from vaping. Photo by Glenn Landberg

A sign posted at The Reel Theater on Overland prohibits moviegoers from vaping. Photo by Glenn Landberg

Most employers have figured out how to fit tobacco use into their human resource rules, wellness plans and health insurance incentives. But plenty are still working on their policies regarding electronic cigarettes, which deliver flavored nicotine-infused liquid through vapor.

The recent popularity of e-cigarettes has prompted some employers to rewrite their rules, changing the words “tobacco products” to “nicotine products.” Others are going with guidance from the American Lung Association, which considers the devices to be tobacco products. Still others are waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to offer some guidance on the battery-powered devices.

“Out there in the industry, it’s a real mixed bag” regarding e-cigarettes, said Heidi Martin, who manages wellness programs for the Saint Alphonsus Regional Health System. Saint Alphonsus provides wellness services to companies in the Treasure Valley and eastern Oregon, and Martin said employers often ask her how to structure their programs, and which health behaviors to address.

“A lot of companies are looking to us for guidance in this area,” Martin said.

Martin estimated that about half the companies she works with that include tobacco cessation in their wellness policies include e-cigarettes as part of that.

Several Idaho employers, including the state’s two largest hospital systems, Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s Health System, are tobacco and e-cigarette free. The University of California system went tobacco and e-cigarette free in January. E-cigarettes have also been banned by the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, Target, Wal-Mart, CVS Caremark Corp., and the U.S. Air Force, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Joanne Graff, a policy analyst for the Central District Health Department in Boise, said the department encourages businesses to include e-cigarettes in their tobacco-free policies.

Graff said many workplaces ban vaping because it’s not known if the vapor that’s exhaled is harmful. “Most worksites want to assure that they are protecting their employees,” she said.

The problem is that employers have had little scientific information to rely on as they decide whether to treat the devices as they do tobacco products.

“It’s just simply not recognized any differently by the FDA yet,” said Paula Andersen, a Kentucky-based consultant for the global human resource consulting group Buck Consultants. She said most of the clients she works with include e-cigarettes in their anti-tobacco policies. “There’s just no regulations around it. It’s really unknown.”

The FDA is taking comments from the public this summer on a proposal that would have it regulate e-cigarettes as it does traditional tobacco products such as cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. It’s not known when it will issue final rules. If the FDA does regulate the devices, it will undertake research on their use and safety, so there will be no quick answers.

A lot of money is at stake for the e-cigarette device manufacturers, who say their sales hit $2 billion last year in the United States. E-cigarettes are so popular that traditional tobacco companies are getting into the vapor cigarette business as well.

Terri Landa

Terri Landa

Meanwhile, along with the regulation, education is happening at workplaces. St. Luke’s, Idaho’s largest employer, started screening employees for nicotine use this year. The results were unexpected, said Terri Landa, the wellness manager for St. Luke’s. Several people who said they didn’t use nicotine tested positive for the drug because of e-cigarette use, Landa said.

“They told me, ‘When I bought that juice, they told me it didn’t have nicotine in it,’” Landa said. “Well, obviously it did.”

Banning all tobacco users isn’t simple

Some employers don’t hire tobacco or nicotine users at all. In Idaho, they include Blue Cross of Idaho, the Ada County Sheriff’s Department, the Central District Health Department, and the Hawley Troxell LLP law firm in Boise.

The Pullman, Wash.-based Schweitzer Engineering, which employs about 900 people in Idaho, put into place several years ago a policy against hiring smokers, but rescinded it last year.

The Schweitzer policy was difficult to maintain as the company grew nationally, said Human Resource Director Stacey Doty. Schweitzer has 3,700 employees worldwide.

“We just decided we weren’t going to ask the question anymore,” Doty said.

Ada County instituted its policy against hiring tobacco users in 2012 but rescinded it late last year because it limited the hiring pool, said spokeswoman Jessica Donald.

“Very qualified applicants were sometimes nicotine users, and nicotine might have been the only factor excluding them,” Donald said. Plus, “some people were quitting just long enough to pass the test to get hired.”

Donald added that Ada County managers were concerned the policy discriminated against tobacco users. According to the American Lung Association, 29 states and Washington, D.C. have laws that treat smokers as a protected class. Idaho isn’t one of them.

The ban is still in place at Hawley Troxell, said Executive Director Susan Olson, who is on the leadership council of the American Lung Association.

“I’d certainly screen out someone who uses e-cigarettes,” Olson said of applicants to the firm, which employs about 100 people in Boise. “We’re self-insured, so we like to keep our employees healthy.”

Saint Alphonsus has no plans to exclude nicotine users from its hiring pool, said spokesman Josh Schlaich. St. Luke’s wellness manager Terri Landa said St. Luke’s has discussed instituting a no-tobacco-users policy. The hospital gives hiring preference to non-tobacco users now. But it’s difficult to block them altogether, Landa said.

“If we were trying to hire a urologist or neonatologist and there were only a few to choose from, sometimes we don’t have the option (of hiring someone who doesn’t use tobacco),” she said. “But we’re discussing it. I kind of think we’ll be there by 2015.”

 

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.