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Just seven years since Ohio’s smoking ban went into effect, the thought of lighting up a cigarette at the office seems almost as foreign as the idea that drinking radioactive water once was thought to ease the pains of arthritis.
But just as technology eventually trumped medical quackery, it’s now caught up with America’s smoking policies.
Industry groups estimate at least 2.5 million Americans now regularly use electronic cigarettes, with millions more having tried it. Those numbers are expected to grow, forcing many businesses to consider whether to allow ecigarette use by employees and customers.
“Just a couple years ago they were so little used that nobody thought to include them in their policies,” said Bob Bethel, human resources director at the Employers’ Association in Maumee.
Now employers are looking for guidance on how to classify the devices.
“Many are inquiring about what others are doing regarding ecigarettes,” Mr. Bethel said. “While there’s no law that dictates that, most employers are treating ecigarettes just like they would tobacco products.”
Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered, often robotic-looking devices that deliver nicotine via water vapor that’s inhaled like a traditional tobacco cigarette. Users prefer the term “vaping” to smoking, and point out that while ecigarettes serve up nicotine, they do not include any tobacco.
In a survey of area businesses conducted last year, the Employers’ Association found that 82 percent of employers banned the use of ecigarettes in the same places where they banned traditional cigarettes.
“Rather than take any risk, most employers are choosing to ban everything altogether,” Mr. Bethel said.
Several large Toledo-area companies are following that trend.
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The Andersons Inc. prohibits employees from using ecigarettes at its facilities and doesn’t allow shoppers to vape in its retail stores. A Chrysler spokesman said that while there’s no general companywide policy on ecigarettes, the Toledo Assembly complex treats them the same as traditional cigarettes and doesn’t allow them to be used inside the building. Owens Corning doesn't allow them either.
Electronic cigarettes are also prohibited for employees and visitors at all ProMedica locations. The hospital giant requires employees to be nicotine free and screens job applicants as part of the hiring process.
Hollywood Casino Toledo also prohibits employees from using any form of nicotine but has a somewhat fluid policy on ecigarettes for visitors.
“In the spirit of the state law not allowing smoking in public places, we felt that encompassed ecigarettes. However it is not something we actively enforce unless we get a complaint from other guests around them,” casino spokesman John McNamara said.
He said the casino had not received any complaints.
“If we receive a complaint we will look at it and handle it,” Mr. McNamara said.
In Ohio and Michigan, no state laws prohibit the use of electronic cigarettes. The closest Ohio has come to taking on electronic cigarettes was a bill passed earlier this month by the Ohio legislature that prohibits sale of the devices to minors.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine was one of the supporters of the bill. He has also pushed for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue regulations on ecigarettes.
Last fall, Mr. DeWine and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley co-wrote a letter urging the FDA to regulate ecigarettes under the Tobacco Control Act.
For now though, decisions are largely up to businesses, which can create some gray areas.
Vapers say sometimes it comes down to who’s working that day or a matter of showing that what they’re puffing on isn’t a traditional cigarette.
Those who sell electronic cigarettes say users don’t often have trouble finding places to vape.
“Most [people who] use them will use it at their place of work, but they kind of do it discreetly,” said Cody Beaver, the manager at Revolver Electronic Cigarettes & Vapor Lounge in Toledo. “Most of the time they say their employers don’t have a problem with it as long as you’re not making a scene.”
At his job, vaping is just part of the environment — while Mr. Beaver checks a customer’s device, another employee casually blows a succession of near-perfect vapor rings.
Mr. Beaver previously worked at a hardware store. He would vape there too, just not on the sales floor.
“As long as I did it discreetly, it was fine,” Mr. Beaver said.
A clerk at another local ecigarette boutique said about half of the store’s customers say they can vape at work and half can’t.
“It really just depends on the particular business owner,” the clerk said.
One restaurant executive contacted by The Blade said the chain’s managers generally set their own policies.
“We haven’t even really discussed it,” he said. “We have a meeting coming up tomorrow. I may actually bring it up.”
Others take a harder line. Julie Sanderson, a spokesman for Franklin Park Mall, said all smoking devices are prohibited in the mall.
“We’ve always had the no smoking policy, and when the devices became popular it just filtered in for us directly into that smoking policy,” she said. “There’s not enough research out there about them. You have to take that into account.”
Aside from the addictive properties of nicotine, the ecigarette industry claims the devices are completely safe. Some anti-smoking groups, however, have argued they’re not. And though there’s general consensus that ecigarettes are safer than their tobacco counterparts, there’s a lot of ambiguity on how much safer.
Because of that, many companies are choosing to side with caution and outlaw them. That has led some companies to reword their employee handbooks.
“We’re seeing employers revisit their policies, and the way they’re stated to ensure they cover these products in the gray zone,” said Laura Hoag, managing consultant with Findley Davies Inc. in Toledo.
However, having a policy is one thing. Ensuring it’s followed is another.
“It always comes down to the question of enforcement, and where there’s a tobacco-free workplace, are they really enforcing that tobacco-free workplace?” Ms. Hoag said.