Tobacco use is the scourge of workplaces everywhere, just ask any smoker who works in an office setting. Businesses ban lighting up in buildings, penalize users through their wellness programs, and relegate smokers to taking their breaks in out-of-sight crannies near alleyway dumpsters.

As the vilification movement continues to swell, an unlikely hero — or perhaps accomplice — has thrown into question what it means to be a smoker in the first place: e-cigarettes, which have in all likelihood already entered your workforce.

With the trend toward saving on health costs through corporate wellness programs in full swing, many businesses are choosing to cut out smoking in the workplace, offering incentives to those who follow through on their efforts to lay down tobacco products for good.

Just how e-cigarettes fit into workplace wellness programs (not to mention the greater U.S. regulatory framework) has yet to be determined. At present, however, there is little reason for businesses to treat e-cigs either as equivalent of cigarettes or the benign replacement for tobacco products that many smokers hope them to be.

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Hazy Science Leads to Hazy Conclusions

The craving is strange and sudden. You realize you’re feeling on edge. Small ripples of discomfort begin to ebb through your mind and body. Then you remember you haven’t smoked in a while.

Time to light up.

A boost of nicotine abruptly eliminates painful sensations in the brain while intensifying positive ones, which is a major reason so many smokers use tobacco as a means to calm themselves down and clear their heads. This would have useful applications in a work environment — if not for the fact that nicotine withdrawal causes the very same symptoms smokers hope to alleviate by furthering their habit.

Although e-cigarettes offer no solution to this problem, one of the arguments for their acceptance in the workplace goes like this: People use tobacco because they are addicted to nicotine. It’s like saying that people use Marijuana because they’re addicted to THC. Those are two different things but evoke the same reaction when ingested. The difference between suboxone and methadone too might not seem to be much but these are quite addictive in nature.

They die from the inhalation of tar and smoke.

Nicotine is a stimulant with known relationships to cardiovascular disease and potential birth defects, among other conditions. While the National Lung Association holds that nicotine is unsafe, e-cigarette promoters fire back that despite ties to a few health issues, the drug itself is not particularly hazardous, causing harm to the human body comparable to caffeine. If coffee drinkers enjoyed their caffeine boost by igniting the beans and inhaling the smoke, then coffee, too, would be the thing that is killing us.

From Orient to Orientation: The History of E-Cigarettes

Despite its recent widespread adoption, the e-cigarette has been around for several decades. Invented by Herbert A. Gilbert, an American, in 1963 and patented as the “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette,” the technology replaced burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air.

At the time over 40 percent of American adults smoked tobacco products. Understanding of its associated health risks was limited, and Gilbert’s prototype was never commercially produced nor sold on a wide scale.

Nearly 40 years later, the inventor of the modern e-cigarette, a Chinese pharmacist, finally made the technology a commercial success. The main problem involved scaling the device down to a portable size, a process that took an additional two years. In 2003 he succeeded in creating a pocket-sized product capable of mass production. The resulting product, the Ruyan E-Cigar, flooded the Chinese tobacco market, the world’s largest, and thanks to internet sales made its way onto to Western homes shortly after.

E-cigarettes were new and different enough that their purchasers defied definition. According to many workplaces and municipalities with bans in effect they are “smokers,” though they are often referred to as “users” or “vape enthusiasts.” In many workplaces, however, the distinction still remains unclear.

New Generation, New Technology

For many a guilt-ridden tobacco user, the sort who always wished he could have his cigarette (and smoke it, too), the advent of e-cigs was hailed as a technological upheaval exactly where an intervention was needed most. The industry’s growth has been accompanied by a drop in the sales of U.S. tobacco products. Roughly a third fewer Americans smoked, as a percentage of the population, in 2014 as did in 1990, although the trend pre-dates the first e-cig sales, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a federal agency.

Many smokers view these devices as the technological solution to the smoker’s dilemma of how to continue engaging in their habit without worrying about the accompanying health concerns. Little research on the health effects of e-cigs and the popular belief that their nicotine-infused vapors are healthier than tobacco smoke has only added more fuel to the industry’s explosive popularity.

Regulators have done little, so far, to tamp down such wishful thinking. Although cigarettes have been banned from television and radio advertisements since 1970, e-cigarette manufacturers are free to advertise across most media without constraint. New technology’s appeal is strongest among the young; not surprisingly, then, e-cigs popularity is strongest among college-age adults. This has led Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, toaccuse manufacturers of targeting teens using the same advertising methods the tobacco industry once used to hook American youths on cigarettes.

E-Cigarettes: Smokers’ Solution to the Smoker’s Dilemma

Although workplaces that equate vaporization with smoking may be guilty of jumping the gun, neither should they accept the argument that vaporizers offer the effervescent equivalent of one’s morning cup of joe. It was smokers, after all, who sought out Gilbert’s invention in response to growing health concerns, who knew about vaporizers well before commercial production began and demanded this product even as e-cigs had only just gone from the lab to the living room.

Research is pending, and regulation of the kind given to most controlled substances is still far in the future, several trials are currently taking place, using flow cytometry techniques. For businesses that want to control health expenditures through workplace wellness programs, the rule of thumb for time being is that nicotine use — no matter how it occurs — could be harmful to employees and raise corporate health-care costs.

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