This month is “Stoptober”, and Optima Health have been supporting workforces with the annual NHS campaign designed to encourage smokers to quit. The number of smokers in the UK is continuing to fall, according to official figures, nevertheless they, and “vapers”, pose a challenge for employers and occupational health professionals alike.

Employee health and wellbeing – supporting employees who want to quit smoking

The number of smokers in the UK is continuing to fall, official figures have suggested, and it is estimated only one in 10 people will smoke in five years’ time.

Just as importantly, Public Health England (PHE) suggests that more than half of smokers recognise it as a habit that is bad for their health, most notably the risk of causing cancer, and they want to quit. In fact, one person in England successfully does quit every 80 seconds, PHE has argued.

This therefore suggests high-profile public health initiatives such as this month’s “Stoptober” from the NHS are pushing at something of an open door.

According to PHE, half of those who quit smoking in 2017 and 2018 used local stop-smoking services, together with stop-smoking aids such as inhalers or patches. The success rate increased to 63% for those who also used an e-cigarette in their attempt to quit.

“There are many different types of stop-smoking support available, so it can be difficult for a smoker to know what will work best for them,” said Dr Jenny Harries, deputy medical director at PHE. “The important thing is not to be put off trying to quit even if you have not managed to in the past.”

Arguments over restrictions

PHE’s narrative that vaping is a positive quit smoking tool has been consistent for some time now. But it is still problematic for employers on a number of levels.

First, the evidence around the benefits of vaping is far from clear-cut. During the summer, for example, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recommended that vaping rules should be relaxed, including loosening the controls on advertising vaping products and easing current restrictions on vaping in public places.

Yet, this was immediately criticised by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), which urged caution in the rush to embrace vaping, citing a paper from the University of Birmingham that suggested e-cigarettes are not safe and are implicated in serious health concerns.

Tony Lewis, head of policy at CIEH, said: “It is clear that there is a huge knowledge gap on the health impacts of vaping over time, and the existence of contradictory reports only highlights the wide-spread confusion.

“Whilst we whole-heartedly support measures to encourage smokers to give up, we believe that the evidence gap on the long-term health implications of vaping needs addressing as a priority and more research carried out.”

How to manage vaping employees

There is also a practical challenge here for employers: how should you treat and manage vapers in the workplace? Do you treat vapers as equivalent to smokers, ban vaping indoors and banish them to a controlled zone outside the building? Or because vaping may be encouraging people to become ex-smokers, do you make an exception, even though vaping can produce a lot of smoke that may be unpleasant to co-workers or colleagues?

The fact the evidence is not conclusive either way means the answer is (unhelpfully) that it is essentially up to you as an employer to do what you deem is most going to resonate with your employee population.

Whatever you decide, the key is to be clear and consistent in your communication, as Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, makes clear.

“Whatever your view of vaping and e-cigarettes as a quit smoking aid, what is important in the workplace setting is to have a clear policy, one that is well-communicated and understood and enforced consistently, so employees fully understand what is appropriate in this context,” she says.

“If both employees and managers know very clearly where they stand, it will make the management of vapers in your workplace – including when, how often and for long they can take breaks to vape – that much easier,” she adds.