James D. has been vaping at his desk for four years.
Every 10 minutes or so, the Rhode Island graphic designer takes a drag on his e-cigarette, inhaling an aerosol made from heated liquid nicotine. It smells like cinnamon or Red Bull, his flavors of choice, the puff of white mist dissipates in seconds, and no one in his open office space complains, he said, not even his boss.
And the days of leaving his desk for a cigarette break every hour or two? Long gone.
“To be honest with you, it’s made me more productive because I would find any little excuse to get that [nicotine] fix,” he said, noting that he has quit smoking tobacco all together. “I really can’t see how it can be any more harmful than the air conditioning ducts or the heating ducts, and all the crap that’s sitting in there.”
Like many employers, the consulting firm where he works doesn’t have a policy about electronic cigarettes or other electronic nicotine inhalers. But with the use of e-cigarettes growing, and health risks unclear, companies are grappling with whether to allow employees to vape, the electronic equivalent of smoking.
So far, the battery-powered devices have been banned in workplaces, bars, and restaurants in three states — North Dakota, New Jersey, and Utah — and in 172 cities and counties, including Boston and 51 other Massachusetts municipalities. But in jurisdictions with no specific regulations in place, people are puffing away.
Some employees, like James, vape openly in break rooms or cubicles; others sneak into bathroom stalls. Many companies have not yet updated smoking policies to include e-cigarettes, but most that have are prohibiting them.
Walmart limits use to designated smoking areas; Starbucks forbids smoking of any kind within 25 feet of its stores. CVS, which doesn’t allow smoking anywhere on its corporate campuses, has a no-tolerance policy on the electronic version. McDonald’s has banned e-cigs in its company-owned restaurants, but leaves the decision up to owners at its franchises.
UPS not only doesn’t allow e-cigarettes, it also charges nonunion employees who use them a $150 monthly insurance premium, the same amount it charges regular smokers. New rules in the Affordable Care Act allow employers to charge workers who smoke up to 50 percent of the annual cost of their health care coverage.
If other companies follow UPS’s lead, employees could be similarly penalized for getting their nicotine electronically. E-cigarettes may also violate terms of smoking-cessation programs required to avoid the charge, benefits specialists say.
The use of e-cigarettes has risen rapidly to a $2 billion industry since they were introduced in the United States near the end of the last decade. It’s still a fraction of the $94 billion combustible cigarette industry, but some analysts predict that as tobacco use declines, consumption of vaporized nicotine products — which are generally cheaper — will surpass traditional cigarettes in the next decade.
The Food and Drug Administration plans to start regulating e-cigarettes as tobacco products, but studies about health effects are mixed.
There is no evidence so far that vaping causes cancer or emphysema, and a recent study out of England found that e-cigarettes were more likely to help smokers quit than nicotine patches or gum. But the aerosol they produce contains nicotine, low levels of toxins, and ultrafine particles that could exacerbate asthma and other illnesses.
Human resources consultant Karyn Rhodes advises corporate clients to ban electronic nicotine products as part of their no-smoking policies. “Anything that could potentially harm other employees, we tend to side on the more cautious,” said Rhodes, a vice president at the Cornerstone Group in Warwick, R.I.
Regardless of whether they allow e-cigarettes in the office, companies should enact policies before employees start testing the boundaries, said employment attorney Amber Elias. Such policies should delineate when, where, and if, vaping is allowed.
“If you leave this area vague, you’re inviting conflict,” said Elias, who works in the Boston office of Fisher & Phillips. “If you have people with clouds of vapor rising from their cubes, how is that going to affect other people?”
It’s also a matter of appearance. A supervisor at a central Massachusetts manufacturing firm, a recovering smoker, asked employment attorney Jonathan Sigel about vaping on the company floor. Sigel, of Mirick O’Connell in Westborough, advised him not to.
“You are a senior manager,” Sigel told him. “Whether you are walking around with a lollipop sticking out of your mouth or a coffee stirrer, or an e-cigarette, it wouldn’t look very professional.”
The company has since amended its no-smoking policy to prohibit e-cigarettes.
Some employers, however, see advantages in e-cigarettes. A small insurance company near Fort Myers, Fla., noted an increase in productivity from allowing employees to vape in the office unless a customer is present, according to news reports. The president of a spring manufacturer in Tulsa, Okla., who quit smoking after she tried e-cigarettes, went so far as to give vaping equipment to employees who smoked.
Allowing employees to vape at work keeps them from going outside with the smokers, which could entice people trying to quit to have a real cigarette, said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, an e-cigarette advocacy organization. “Being able to stay inside is a great incentive,” Conley said.
But e-cigarette critics say vaping could trigger a desire for the real thing. E-cigarettes are not banned at Shechtman Halperin Savage LLP, a Pawtucket, R.I., law firm, but managing partner Stephen Shechtman is leaning toward doing so.
“To me, when you quit smoking, you have to get away from it. You have to put it behind you. And I’m not convinced that e-cigarettes are putting it behind you,” said Shechtman, a former smoker who offers financial incentives for employees to quit the habit. “It could be a substitute that brings you back to the problem.”
This story has been edited in accordance with the Globe’s Fresh Start initiative.