Electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes are taking the nation by storm – and igniting a storm of controversy surrounding their use.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that convert liquid nicotine into a vapor that users inhale. E-cigarettes don’t burn, so there’s no ash and no smoky smell.

Proponents claim e-cigarettes are safer than tobacco cigarettes and tout them as a superior alternative to nicotine gum or nicotine patches for smokers who want to quit.

Opponents say there’s no proof to back those claims. While a growing number of scientists are studying the devices, the results to date are inconclusive.

For example, a study whose results were published in the journal Nature on April 8 suggests that using e-cigarettes could increase the user’s risk of cancer. Scientists exposed bronchial cells to the vapor from both tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes and, although not identical, the gene mutations that resulted were certainly similar.

Study author Avrum Spira, a genomics and lung cancer researcher at Boston University, says the results indicate that e-cigarettes may be safer than tobacco, but that they may not be benign.

Meanwhile, an article in The New York Times last month highlighted a trend of rising calls to poison-control centers linked to the nicotine in e-liquids.

E-cigarettes are unregulated in the United States, and neither California nor federal law restricts their use in the workplace. However, states and municipalities are scrambling to establish some laws governing their use. As of Jan. 2, 2014, 108 municipalities and three states – New Jersey, Utah and North Dakota – prohibit the use of e-cigarettes in smoke-free environments. Others haven’t yet addressed the issue, leaving employers to set their own rules.

So, how should an employer respond?

Until more studies are completed and there is legislation for employers to follow, we recommend treating e-cigarettes the way you treat cigarettes in your workplace.

If you are an employer who seeks guidance on e-cigarettes or other workplace issues, contact Johnson Employment Law for guidance.