08/07/2016 08:52 BST | Updated 07/07/2017 06:12 BST

Should We Be Able to Use E-Cigarettes in the Workplace?

Since 1 July 2007 smoking had been banned in all enclosed public and work places in England. There was real disquiet before the legislation - how would it work? The reality is the younger generation of workers probably can't quite imagine a workplace with a designated smoking room, or a smoking carriage on a train.

So is it a step backwards to say in some circumstances businesses might introduce a policy that permits e-cigarette use in designated areas?

At the the Society of Occupational Medicine and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine we have welcomed Public Health England's new framework on the Use of E-cigarettes in the Workplace and Public Places.

The use of e-cigarettes as a substitute for smoking tobacco has been the subject of much controversy. However, recent evidence-reviews by the Royal College of Physicians (April) and today from Public Health England, suggest that they are less harmful than tobacco.

While the promotion of healthier and more productive workplaces may still be best served by continued support for smoke-free environments, at the same time smokers should be reassured that these products may help them in their journey to quit all tobacco use forever. And the workplace is a good place to share that message.

As a society we know that smoking is a major cause of premature death, and disease in the UK, and every case of smoking-related disease is an avoidable, personal and family tragedy.

At the same time we also know that the effects are not limited to the individual, there are costs to the NHS, to employers and the wider economy. Research shows that current smokers are 33% more likely to miss work than non-smokers, and up to 33 more hours off sick than non-smokers. For those of us in employment , the workplace is where we spend the majority of our waking hours, so it makes sense for support and advice to help smokers quit to be available at work.

An independent review of the evidence published by PHE last year estimated vaping to be about 95% less harmful than smoking, and confirmed earlier findings that it poses virtually no harm to bystanders.

Occupational health practitioners have an important role in shaping non-smoking policies in their organisations. They should be aware of the new PHE guidance and decide how best this should be reflected in their local policy depending on the particular employment setting. The five principles in the PHE guidance articulate the need to distinguish clearly between smoking and vaping, and to strike a balance between enabling e-cigarette use to help existing smokers to cut down and stop, whilst avoiding any encouragement of uptake of e-cigarettes among non smokers (especially young people).

So in conclusion workplaces should review their policies in light of this guidance - with the support of occupational health professionals. E-cigarettes do have a role to place in stopping people smoking but it must be approached in the right way.