GREENSBORO, N.C. — When John Castellano feels like a smoke, he simply heads to the break room at Kraft Foods’s factory in Garland, Texas.
The technician has been able to indulge his habit in common areas at work since he started using electronic cigarettes, which emit vapor rather than smoke.
E-cigarettes are “very liberating,” said Castellano, 39, who used to join the other nicotine addicts at the factory’s designated smoking area.
Twenty-five years after companies began banning smoking in the workplace, the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes is forcing them to review their policies. Many corporations still ban “vaping” as they wait to see if the FDA will regulate e-cigarettes as strictly as regular smokes. Yet Kraft and Walgreen allow local managers to set the rules. Smaller firms, especially creative agencies and Web startups, have already adopted a more laissez-faire attitude.
U.S. e-cigarettes sales will triple this year to $1.5 billion, according to Euromonitor International. They’re expected to accelerate as traditional tobacco makers muscle into a market previously dominated by small players. Both Altria Group and Reynolds American, the biggest U.S. tobacco sellers, are expanding distribution of e-cigarettes. Lorillard controls about half of the U.S market with blu eCigs, which it acquired last year.
So far, small companies where bosses can monitor whether e-cigarettes bother co-workers are more likely to allow vaping.
“It is all new to us,” said Ged King, president of the Sales Factory, a 35-employee marketing firm based here. He looked up in surprise during a staff meeting a few months ago to see an employee vaping. Now several employees do it, presumably “to help them kick the smoking habit,” he said.
“We’ve not put a policy in place because nobody has complained,” King said.
The technology gives users seeking anonymity an edge. E-cigarettes heat liquid nicotine into an inhaled vapor, dissipating faster than cigarette smoke. So workers more worried about being seen than smelled puff e-cigarettes in empty offices and bathrooms, according to posts on the E-Cigarette Forum website, where visitors share favorite flavors and vaping lounges, plus tips on how to avoid offending co-workers.
“I’m doing it on the down-low and just close the door,” said Dennis Rumpf, a construction manager in Charlotte, N.C. He declined to identify his employer because it didn’t authorize him to speak publicly.
Rumpf, 37, said he alternates between menthol and classic tobacco flavors in the e-cigarettes he’s been using for six months, after 19 years as a smoker.
“I have people come into my office all the time and I’m sure they’d say something if they noticed anything,” he said.
Web developer Adam Gray has won his boss’s approval to use e-cigarettes at his Minnetonka, Minn., office.
“It makes him more productive and sets him on a path for better health,” said Paul Hanson, chief operating officer of TrackIF LLC, a firm that monitors price changes across the Web.
Gray, 27, can “vape all day, a puff here and there” without leaving his desk, he said.
Kraft doesn’t have a companywide e-cigarettes policy and allows managers to make their own rules as long as they abide by local and state laws. Walgreen, the largest U.S. drugstore retailer, also leaves decisions to office managers.
However, health and regulatory uncertainties have prompted many employers to treat e-cigarettes like regular cigarettes, said Paula Andersen, a registered nurse at Buck Consultants, a human- resources firm that advises companies on health programs.
“We recommend that if companies do have a tobacco-free policy that they call electronic cigarettes out as well,” said Andersen, who declined to identify clients.
Exxon Mobil and General Motors allow vaping in designated smoking areas, while CVS Caremark and Lowe’s ban e-cigarettes and regular smokes. Levi Strauss & Co. forces vapers to go outside.
“For the most part, people who vape are treated as smokers,” said LeeAnn Blohm, who favors chocolate peanut butter and butterscotch e-cigarettes. She declined to identify her employer in Austin, Texas, which doesn’t allow vaping inside.