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Chris Whitty bravely comes out as anti-Elf Bar

The chief medical officer said it was ‘utterly unacceptable’ for the disposable vape giant to market its products to adolescents

Chris Whitty (of “next slide please” fame) has come out swinging against the rising number of young vapers.

“I think everyone agrees that marketing vaping, an addictive product, with … unknown consequences for developing minds, to children is utterly unacceptable,” the chief medical officer told MPs on Tuesday. “Yet it is happening. There’s no doubt it’s happening because, although from a low base, the rates of vaping have doubled in the last couple of years among children. So that is an appalling situation.”

While it is illegal to sell vapes to under-18s, as Whitty says, national surveys suggest that the proportion of young people aged 11 to 17 who vape has nearly doubled in just two years. The popularity of disposable vapes, such as Elf Bars, has also soared: 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. Additionally, on TikTok – where the overwhelming majority of users are Gen Z – #elfbar has over 1 billion views.

Whitty went on to single out Elf Bar as one of the worst-offending brands. “Disposable vapes [...] like Elf Bar are clearly the kinds of products which look as if they’re being marketed, in reality, at children.“ It’s a valid criticism: Elf Bar sells e-cigarettes which come in a range of bright colours and sweet flavours, including cotton candy, blue raspberry and cola. “Is it reasonable to have, in any case, flavours and colours that are clearly aimed at essentially encouraging people to vape who may well not be vaping at all?” he continued.

He added: “I think we should look very seriously at these products for which the child market appears to be the principal market and say: ‘Why are we considering this to be a good thing to have?’”

Whitty isn’t keen to outlaw vaping, however. He stressed that e-cigarettes can be a valuable harm-reduction tool, and reiterated that vaping is far safer than smoking cigarettes. “Everyone agrees, I think, that it is far safer for someone to vape than to smoke,” he said. “So if the choice has to be between one of two of those – they’re smoking heavily now, they want to come off smoking, and they can move on to vaping, they can’t just completely stop, then that is a net benefit in health terms.”

“Vaping has an important role as a public health tool to help smokers who are addicted … to come off smoking.”

Speaking to Dazed in May last year, Hazel Cheeseman, deputy chief executive at Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), reiterated these sentiments. “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 said.

“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.”