You might not know what an Elf Bar is, but you’ll almost certainly have seen one. Once you start noticing the small, highlighter-coloured, flavoured disposable e-cigarettes (yes, they are not energy bars or sweets), which cost around £4 each, you realise that they are everywhere.
Sales of disposable vapes in the UK have boomed over the last year, growing 883 per cent between May 2021 and May 2022 at some retailers, according to online retailer, The Vape Club. Chinese-owned Elf Bars, one of the top brands, saw its sales double in the second half of 2022 alone. Type the hashtag Elf Bar into TikTok and you’ll be shown 185.5 million video results. Unlike earlier vapes – that are refilled with liquid or “vape juice” after they run out – these new models are single-use. They have a limited number of puffs and when you’re done, you ditch it. Mini Vape Pen
Lara*, 27, from London, got hooked on disposable vapes when a friend handed her an Elf Bar at the pub. “At the beginning, I thought it looked ridiculous,” she tells i, “but then I found myself not being as out of breath with them as I am when I smoke. It was easier to stay fit. Then, my habit spiralled because they’re so easy and convenient to pick up, newsagents do deals like two for £10, and you get all these different flavours.”
Disposable e-cigarettes are now the most used product among current vapers, soaring from eight per cent in 2021, to 52 per cent in 2022 – a colossal shift in the market. “When you go out and have one,” says Lara, “you don’t offend people like you do with smoking. It makes socialising and conversing with people easier because people often don’t like cigarette smoke blowing at them, whereas the vapour smell isn’t offensive. But they’re so addictive. I’ll pick one up on a walk and find myself going through one every two days, or one in a day, it’s so bad.”
But is it so bad? Vaping has been proven to be 95 per cent less harmful than smoking cigarettes, according to Public Health England. Hazel Cheeseman, deputy chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), says that vapes have been profoundly helpful in curbing smoking patterns in the population overall. “We’ve seen thousands and thousands of people stop smoking as a result of vapes being so popular. The evidence that we’ve got suggests they’re at least as effective in stopping cigarette smokers, as most of the medications that we’ve got.”
Jack, 20, from Kent, tells i that he is “completely addicted” to Elf Bars. “I can’t stop smoking them, but I also smoke less cigarettes now because I vape instead. I only started vaping because it tasted nice, it’s honestly so yummy.”
While vaping might be preferable to smoking, this isn’t to say that vapes are risk-free. “Although vaping is generally much safer than cigarettes and include a fraction of the chemical products,” says Dr Gareth Nye, who teaches physiology at Chester Medical School, “they do still contain products that are being inhaled into our deep lung tissue. As with most products we put into our body, they are not 100 per cent safe.”
Elf Bars don’t contain tobacco but come prefilled with a nicotine salt-based e-liquid containing 20 milligrams of nicotine per millilitre – the highest concentration permitted by UK law.
“We don’t yet know enough regarding the long-term impact,” says Dr Nye. “Dentists are reporting increases in dental problems which are being linked to vaping, and there is a potential that in 30 to 40 years we may start seeing a wave of chronic lung problems put down to the chemicals being inhaled. Vaping is far safer than traditional smoking, but for those who have never smoked, you are putting yourself in unnecessary danger.”
While vapes have been broadly a good thing for public health, experts are worried about the growing popularity of disposable vapes among children. Selling e-cigarettes to under-18s is illegal, but they are easy to access online and buy on the bricks-and-mortar high street. There have been reports of children as young as seven puffing on disposal vapes in school.
The annual YouGov youth survey for Ash, carried out in March, showed current vaping among children aged 11-17 up from four per cent in 2020 to seven per cent in 2022. The proportion of children who admit ever having tried vaping has also risen from 14 per cent in 2020 to 16 per cent in 2022. Yet, 92 per cent of under 18s who’ve never smoked, have also never vaped, and only two per cent have vaped more frequently than once or twice.
And there has been a particular rise in young people using disposable, rather than refillable, vapes: in January 2021, less than one per cent of 18-year-old vapers used disposable vapes, but that figure rose to 57 per cent by January 2022, according to a study by the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at University College London.
There is also the environmental impact of these single-use vapes to consider. According to a joint investigation by Material Focus and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, more than 50 per cent of single-use vapes get thrown away – some 1.3 million every week. As well as the plastic, single-use vape contains on average 0.15g of lithium – the mining of which has reportedly led to water loss, ground destabilisation, biodiversity loss, increased salinity of rivers, contaminated soil and toxic waste around the world.
“Elf Bars seem to have become a pop culture fixation in 2022,” says Alex Catt, a 25-year-old Green Party councillor at Norwich City Council, ”but in reality we see them littering the streets. We’ve seen small steps forward in the campaigns against single use items with plastic straws being banned and the drive to use reusable cups, but the appearance of Elf Bars and the sudden hype around them is one big step backwards. While cigarette butts take up to 10 years to decompose, Elf Bars never will.”
As regulation around smoking becomes ever stricter, the Association of Directors of Public Health said in July it also wanted to see tighter regulations on disposable vapes. Notably, to ban brightly coloured packaging and have a review of vape flavours that are likely to appeal to children, like cola, watermelon, cheesecake, and pink lemonade. One of the worries, says the association, is that products like the Elf Bar brand are being promoted by social influencers, who in some cases claim to be paid for the promotions and benefit from free products.
“We really don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says Cheeseman. “Research shows the levels of use among those under 18 have gone up but they’re still pretty low. Yet we would like the Government to look at and pay attention to the way that disposable vapes are being talked about and promoted on social media, and the fact they’re visible, brightly coloured and attractive to children.”
Lara loves her Elf Bars, but she has her worries. “These vapes are easier and cheaper to buy, and to use indoors, and it leads to people having no barrier to their habit,” she says. “Seeing kids walk down the street with them, and thinking that maybe they wouldn’t have smoked otherwise, is a concern. They are taking over.”
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