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Photograph: Steve Beech

Will Elf Bars die in 2023?

2022 had us all riding the vapour wave, but are colourful E-cigs going to stick around into the new year?

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

Unless you’re still stubbornly self-isolating, chances are you’ve noticed that the UK’s been taken over by colourful sticks emanating puffs of sweet-smelling vapour. Originating from China, the most popular brand of disposable vapes, Elf Bar, comes in flavours like Cotton Candy, Blue Razz Lemonade and Peach Ice, and by the summer of 2022, these rainbow sticks of fruity-flavoured smoke had the nation in a chokehold. Every festival, nightclub smoking area, beer garden and park was filled with them. While in 2021 vaping was still regarded as expensive, basically uncool and reserved for the likes of smokers who wanted to quit, last year everyone was suddenly huffing on E-cigs. There’s no denying it: 2022 was the year of the Elf Bar.

‘Over the last 12 months disposable vapes have gone absolutely mental,’ says Ed Swain, director of Vape Superstore. According to vape retailer IndeJuice, sales of disposable bars soared by a staggering 279 percent towards the end of 2021. And it’s not just croaky-voiced chain smokers that adopted the nicotine pens. Part of their astronomical rise is because they’re a huge hit with Gen Z. In January 2021, less than 1 percent of 18-year-old vapers used single-use pens, but that increased to 57 percent by January 2022, according to a study by the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at UCL. 

Rising from relative obscurity, the now-omnipresent brands like Elf Bar, Geek Bar and Lost Mary took over the vaping market, and it seemed like every person between the ages of 18 and 35 was clutching a colourful stick. But what allowed these little pens to become so ubiquitous they practically rule our lives? And are they going to stick around this year?

A must-have fashion accessory 

The three brands mentioned above all have three things in common: they come in bright Millennial and Gen Z colours, are pocket-sized, and have childish flavours associated with sweets. ‘It was the manipulative combination of post-lockdown euphoria, cute naming, jelly-coloured aesthetics, and a sweet-flavoured profile that also delivers a dopamine hit for anyone seeking instant gratification that has meant Elf Bars have been heavily adopted within youth culture,’ says Luke Hodson, an expert in youth marketing and founder of Nerds Collective.

The product isn’t necessarily cool, it’s the people giving the product visibility that are cool

Elf Bars don’t just offer that instant niccy buzz that people are looking for alongside the warm fuzz of a beer jacket, they’ve become a hot fashion accessoryElf Bar cracked TikTok and used influencers (still a grey area when it comes to marketing nicotine products) to tap into a huge youth market. ‘The product isn’t necessarily cool, it’s the people giving the product visibility that are cool,’ explains Hodson. Suddenly, no outfit was complete without an Elf Bar to match. Head to TikTok where #elfbar has an astonishing 1.3 billion views, and you’ll see people in Elf Bar Halloween costumes, co-ordinating them with their outfits and proudly displaying their collections of, sometimes literally hundreds, of colourful vape sticks for the world to see. This Christmas there was an Elf Bar advent calendar. 

‘The aesthetic of them has led to a mass of people displaying their collections of used vapes proudly, and sharing them online,’ says Maisie Oliver, a designer at marketing agency Rewind Creative. She adds that having an Elf Bar helps young people feel part of the gang. ‘Vapes are something people can relate to and feel a part of.’ 

The E-cigs also have an incredibly satisfying ergonomic design. The bars feel silky to the touch and are perfectly palm-sized. ‘The designs themselves are clean-looking, appealing to the younger generation by using pastel gradients on the exterior,’ Oliver says. ‘They also made them as small as possible to be able to slip into a bag and go.’

A single disposable vape is cheaper than a pack of cigs. Retailing at around a fiver, ‘disposable vapes provide a cheaper option which makes it more likely that young people may try it,’ says Deborah Arnott, chief executive at Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). And according to Hodson, the low price point is one of the most compelling things about the bars for Gen Z. 

All of this now means that although vapes might have once been the preserve of quitters, now people aged 18 to 35, or even younger, are far more likely to be clutching a colourful disposable stick than a bulkier reusable vape. It’s also led people ‘who have never previously had an interest in smoking or vaping to start to fit in with the trend’, Oliver says.

An environmental catastrophe 

‘The greatest problem in the scale of things is that they’re ecologically disastrous,’ says ASH’s Arnott. While the effects of vaping on health are still up for debate (though they’re thought to be far less harmful than conventional cigarettes, according to the NHS), the environmental impact of disposable vape sticks is catastrophic. Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Material Focus found that 1.3 million single-use vapes are being thrown in UK landfills every week: a horrifying two bars every second, or enough to cover 22 football pitches in a year. The research also discovered that single-use vapes made up 37 percent of all vapes bought in the UK last year, increasing to 52 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds.

The greatest problem in the scale of things is that they’re ecologically disastrous

‘There are very few companies that are actually able to recycle the products without just incinerating them,’ Swain explains. While rechargeable vapes only require users to throw away the packaging for new vape liquid, single-use ones contain batteries made with lithium, of which there is a finite source in the world. And although Elf and Geek bars have both now introduced reusable products, it’s too soon to tell whether these will overtake the popularity and novelty of single-use vapes. ‘We’re not seeing a massive uplift in people starting on reusable kits,’ says Swain. ‘People tend to like the convenience of single-use.’ 

Bye-bye, Elf Bars?

Despite the potential disaster single-use vape sticks pose the planet, young folk aren’t likely to ditch the pens, with their trendy colours and flavours, any time soon. ‘We only see them becoming more popular at this moment in time,’ says Swain. ‘It would take some kind of legislative change [to make them go away]. Such as a green tax, or a review on their sustainability.’

This is unlikely to happen in the next year, he adds. ‘The health secretary has just scrapped the plans for a smoke-free 2030. Their focus isn’t necessarily on the vaping market, I don’t think it’s a big enough fish.’

But aren’t Gen Z seriously worried about the environment? I hear you ask. Well, yes, but as a demographic they’re also likely to have habits that don’t always reflect their beliefs, Hodson explains. ‘We constantly see examples of Gen Z values contradicting their consumption habits. Elf Bars are just another example, alongside fast fashion. Young people are often conflicted as they desperately try to fit in as an individual in a fast-moving cultural landscape.’

And even if young environmentalists move away from single-use vaping, advertising will remain an issue. The Action for Smoking Health is concerned about the products’ ‘glitzy’ and ‘child-friendly’ branding, and will be monitoring out-of-home and point-of-sale advertising of the E-cigs very closely over the coming year. 

‘Smoke pens have far fewer health risks than cigarettes and [advertising them] could only be challenged because nicotine is a psychoactive drug which can have negative effects on mood and behaviour,’ Hodson explains. ‘But that’s the same as coffee, so it’s kind of awkward.’ 

In Scotland, the government is considering tightening the laws on vaping adverts, but in the rest of the UK, it seems that we’ll remain slaves to the Elf Bar and its sweet nicotine hit. As Hodson says: ‘That company’s distribution strategy left no stone unturned. The ethics, however, are very questionable.’

Despite the murky morals, it remains to be seen whether firmer regulation of the disposable vape company’s promotional tactics will be enough to get its products taken off our shelves. In the UK in 2023, it doesn’t seem very likely. Get set for another Year of the Elf.

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