Disposable vapes have recently grown in popularity – but the trend may not be trivial because it seems
They are everywhere. They are in the manicured mittens of young professionals, perched on the terraces of Instagrammable cocktail bars. They are sneakily nursed by students huddled in the corners of local pubs. They are the source of the cherry-scented miasma that fogs up smoking areas across the country. These are, of course, Elf bars.
Disposable vapes have grown in popularity in recent months. In the last quarter of 2021, the UK’s leading online vaping platform saw a 279% increase sales of disposable vapes, with Geek and Elf bars emerging as the most popular brands. Young people are particularly attracted to disposable vapes: a recent study found that less than 1% of 18-year-old vapers used disposable products in early 2021, rising to around 57% in January 2022. On TikTok, the hashtag #elfbar currently has nearly 600 million views.
She, 26, started using the Elf bars in December. She explains that she used to use a reusable Juul before, but the continuous purchase of new pods quickly became expensive, prompting her to look for disposable options. She adds that she discovered that Elf bars made it easier for her to quit smoking. “I had been smoking since I was about 18,” she tells me. “But since using the Elf bars, I have completely quit smoking. I had, like, two cigarettes in 2022, which is crazy because sometimes if I was at a party, I would chain-smoke 30 cigarettes.
Nikita, 22, started vaping in February this year after deciding to quit smoking. “The Elf bars weighed around six pounds and one vape lasted me almost two weeks. It was much cheaper than smoking cigarettes,” she says. Andrew, 24, also uses vaping to wean himself 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 blow one in the smoking area and it’s not bait.”
Despite widely known links to health issues like heart disease and lung cancer, cigarettes don’t seem to be undermining their Cool Thing image. “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 be [symbolise] renegade grows in some form,” wrote John Orvted in the New York Times earlier this year. In contrast, vaping has been seen as the silly, sanitized little cousin of smoking.
But the Elf Bars managed to completely overturn the slightly squeaky image of vaping. Their sleek, ergonomic, and colorful design contrasts sharply with the bigger, uglier vapes of the mid-2010s. to young consumers. They’re also more accessible than most other vapes, with cheap retail prices and improved features. You don’t need to bother buying liquids or chargers with Elf bars – just take them out of the pack and start blowing. “I remember when I first tried one, I was like, ‘this is a bit about me,'” a friend of mine told me.
Today, the ubiquity of Elf bars fuels their growing popularity. “Most of my friends who smoke now use Elf bars or vapes. It’s like a herd mentality,” Elle says. “A few of us started doing it and now we all do it.” Liam Humberstone, CTO of vaping company Totally Wicked, says Elf bars aren’t just for regular and long-term smokers and says they’ve “undoubtedly attracted a lot more social smokers, regular smokers and , in some cases, people who would otherwise have found themselves trying combustibles.
Big red newspapers have stoked the moral panic about vaping in recent years and there has been furor over whether vapes have the power to act as a gateway to cigarettes. But research says otherwise: vaping has proven 95% less harmful than smoking cigarettes and less than 1 percent of current vapers have never smoked cigarettes. “Vaping is a public health phenomenon. Thousands of people who would smoke today aren’t because they switched to vaping,” says Hazel Cheeseman, deputy executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). “National vaping data has consistently shown very low levels of use among those who don’t smoke.”
“Most of my friends who smoke now use Elf bars or vapes. It’s like a herd mentality. A few of us started doing it and now we all do it” – She
That’s not to say vaping is unambiguously good or OK. Nikita says she worries about her addiction to disposable vapes: “I just got more and more addicted,” she says. “I bought an Elf bar every week. Then every other day. At one point it was every 24 hours. She adds that she has now switched to larger, stronger Elux bars, which contain the nicotine equivalent of 48 cigarettes. “A lot of my friends and my boyfriend all had the same experience,” she says. “A couple went back to cigarettes because they’re cheaper.”
“I have a harder time not taking an Elf bar after three months of vaping than quitting smoking after four years of smoking. I have never had vaping liquid as addictive as an Elf bar”, adds Andrew, “My friends and I call them ‘crack sticks.’ are right in front of the counter.The same restrictions as cigarettes should apply.
Cheeseman acknowledges that vaping is not trivial, but reiterates that it is still extremely beneficial when it comes to getting smokers to quit. “If products that are very appealing to non-smokers hit the streets, that’s something new and needs to be watched carefully,” she says. “While vaping is far less risky than smoking – one in two smokers will die of a smoking-related disease – it is not without risk. It is something the government will need to continue to monitor to ensure that the enormous societal benefits of switching smokers are not undermined by non-smokers taking up vaping.
There’s also the environmental impact of disposable vapes to consider alongside potential health pitfalls, says Tom Pashby, digital journalist at the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment. According to Pashby, disposable vapes often carry bacteria into people’s mouths; nicotine, a biocide known to be harmful to life; flammable lithium batteries; and non-degradable plastic or metal enclosures. “There is 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 […] As disposable vapes become more and more popular, it will be more and more necessary to consider how to dispose of them responsibly.
Although we should be aware of the risks they could pose to our health and the environment, we should not lose sight of what Elf Bars really are – a trend. Are they risk-free and sustainably made? No. But it seems unfair and unnecessary to berate the youngsters for having a little fun with the Elf bars when there are finally bigger fish to fry, and arguably, the responsibility of making sure the vapes are produced in a sustainable manner is in any case the responsibility of the manufacturers. “The UK government is currently considering proposals for something called ‘extended producer responsibility’ in relation to the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment,” Pashby continues. “This could mean that the responsibility for recycling disposable vapes lies with the vape manufacturers themselves, and hopefully encourages vape producers to take a more circular approach to materials – prioritizing reuse rather than ‘to recycling and waste.’
Elf bars might be “bad,” but so is eating cheese, taking an Uber, and forgetting to recycle the weird cereal box. We all have our vices. Also, like all fads, Elf Bars probably won’t be around for very long anyway. “Hopefully I’ll wean myself off nicotine at some point,” Elle says. “I’m not going to vape forever.”
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