Disposable vapes have recently surged in popularity – but the trend may not be harmless as it seems
They’re everywhere. They’re in the manicured mitts of young professionals, perched in the terraces of Instagrammable cocktail bars. They’re furtively suckled by students huddled in the corners of local pubs. They’re the source of the cherry-scented miasma fogging up smoking areas across the nation. They are, of course, Elf bars.
The disposable vapes have soared in popularity in recent months. In the last quarter of 2021 the UK's leading online vape platform IndeJuice saw a 279 per cent increase in sales of disposable vapes, with Geek and Elf bars emerging as the most popular brands. Young people are particularly taken with disposable vapes: one recent study found that fewer than 1 per cent of 18-year-old vapers used disposables at the start of 2021, rising to around 57 per cent in January 2022. On TikTok, the hashtag #elfbar currently has nearly 600 million views.
26-year-old Elle started using Elf bars in December. She explains that she’d previously been using a reusable Juul, but continually buying new pods quickly became expensive, prompting her to look into disposable options. She adds that she’s found Elf bars have made it easier for her to stop smoking cigarettes. “I had smoked since I was about 18,” she tells me. “But since using Elf bars I’ve fully stopped smoking. I’ve had, like, two cigs in 2022 which is crazy because sometimes if I was on a night out I’d chain smoke 30 cigs.”
Nikita, 22, began vaping in February this year after she decided to quit smoking cigarettes. “Elf bars were like six pounds and a vape would last me almost two weeks. It was a lot cheaper than smoking cigarettes,” she says. 24-year-old Andrew is also using vaping to wean off cigarettes and bought an Elf bar for the first time three months ago. “It was ‘uncool’ when I had a vape in 2018, but now everyone has them and they're socially acceptable,” he says. “You can chuff one in the smoking area and it's not bait.”
Despite the widely-known links with health problems like heart disease and lung cancer, cigarettes can’t seem to shake their image as a Cool Thing. “Despite the science, or the times, it’s one of those things, like bluejeans, that has always been tinged with a sense of cool, and will always [symbolise] renegade urges in some form,” John Orvted wrote in the New York Times earlier this year. By contrast, vaping has been seen as smoking’s dorky, sanitised little cousin.
But Elf bars have managed to turn vaping’s slightly cringe image completely on its head. Their sleek, ergonomic and colourful design is a stark contrast to chunkier, uglier vapes from the mid-2010s. They also come in a range of nostalgic, sweet flavours – including cotton candy and cola – which doubtless appeal to younger consumers. They’re also more accessible than most other vapes, with cheap retail prices and improved functionality. You don’t need to faff around with buying liquids or chargers with Elf bars – you just take them out the packet and start puffing. “I remember when I first tried one, I thought: ‘this is a bit of me’,” one of my friends tells me.
Now, Elf bars’ ubiquity is fuelling their growing popularity. “Most of my friends who smoke are now on Elf bars or vapes. It’s like a herd mentality thing,” Elle says. “A few of us started doing it and now all of us do.” Liam Humberstone, technical director of vape company Totally Wicked, affirms that Elf bars aren’t just for long-term, regular smokers and says that they have “undoubtedly attracted many more social smokers, regular smokers, and in some cases, people who would have otherwise found themselves trying combustibles.”
Red top papers have stoked moral panics about vaping in recent years and there’s been furore over whether vapes have the power to act as a gateway to cigarettes. But research says otherwise: vaping has been proven to be 95 per cent less harmful than smoking cigarettes and fewer than 1 per cent of current vapours have never smoked cigarettes. “Vaping has been a public health phenomenon. Thousands of people who would be smoking today are not because they’ve switched to vaping,” says Hazel Cheeseman, deputy chief executive at Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). “The national data on vaping has consistently shown very low levels of use among those who don’t smoke.”
“Most of my friends who smoke are now on Elf bars or vapes. It’s like a herd mentality thing. A few of us started doing it and now all of us do” – Elle
This isn’t to say that vaping is unambiguously good or OK. Nikita says she’s concerned about how dependent she is on disposable vapes: “I’ve just become more and more addicted to it,” she says. “I would buy an Elf bar every week. Then every couple of days. At one point it was every 24 hours.” She adds she’s now moved onto bigger, stronger Elux bars – which contain the equivalent nicotine content of 48 cigarettes. “A lot of my friends and my boyfriend have all had the same experience,” she says. “A couple have moved back to cigarettes because they’re cheaper.”
“I’m finding it harder to not pick up an Elf bar after three months of vaping than I did to quit cigarettes after four years of being a smoker. Never had any vape liquid anywhere near as addictive as an Elf bar,” Andrew adds. “My friends and I call them ‘crack sticks’. In my opinion, they should be behind the counter with cigs, in a dirty green package, and only tobacco-flavoured. They're literally like toys and they're right at the front of the counter. The same restrictions as cigs should apply.”
Cheeseman acknowledges that vaping is not harmless, but reiterates that they’re still hugely beneficial when it comes to getting smokers to quit. “If products are hitting the streets that have a big appeal among never-smokers, then this is something new and needs to be carefully monitored,” she says. “While vaping is very much less risky than smoking – one in two smokers will die of a smoking related illness – it is not risk-free. This is something the government will need to keep monitoring to make sure that the massive benefits to society from smokers switching are not undermined by non-smokers taking up vaping.”
@caitlinharperr because i only ever buy the same flavour #elfbar #vape #uk #HowDoYouHUGO ♬ Ginseng Strip 2002 - Yung Lean
There’s also the environmental impact of disposable vapes to consider alongside the potential health pitfalls, says Tom Pashby, a digital journalist at the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment. According to Pashby, disposable vapes will often carry bacteria from being in people’s mouths; nicotine, a recognised biocide which is harmful to life; flammable lithium batteries; and nondegradable plastic or metal casings. “There’s a whole other set of challenges with plastic waste and pollution,” they say. “The environmental costs of creating vapes in the first place are not well understood [...] With disposable vapes becoming more popular, there will be a growing need to address the issue of how to dispose of them responsibly.”
While we should be mindful of the risks they might pose to our health and to the environment, we shouldn’t lose sight of what Elf bars actually are – a trend. Are they risk-free and sustainably made? No. But it seems unfair and pointless to chastise young people for having a bit of fun with Elf bars when there are ultimately bigger fish to fry, and arguably, the responsibility to ensure vapes are sustainably made lies with manufacturers anyway. “The UK government is currently reviewing proposals for something called ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ with respect to Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling,” Pashby continues. “This could mean that the responsibility for disposable vape recycling is placed with the vape manufacturers themselves, and hopefully that would encourage producers of the vapes to take a more circular approach to materials – prioritising reuse over recycling and refuse.”
Elf bars may be ‘bad’, but ultimately, so is eating cheese, taking an Uber, and forgetting to recycle the odd cereal box. We all have our vices. Besides, like all fads, Elf bars probably won’t be around for too much longer anyway. “I’m hopefully gonna wean myself off the nicotine at some point,” Elle says. “I’m not gonna vape forever.”