EWalk into a UK nightclub tonight and you’ll find yourself surrounded by an unmistakable cloud of fruity smoke. This plume of candied vapor comes from an Elf Bar, the new Gen Z accessory. The Elf Bar is a new pre-filled disposable vape device that is slimmer and more compact than a normal e-cigarette. In the windows of discount and unlicensed phone stores and sold in nightclubs and supermarkets, bright pink, neon yellow and berry red pens are neatly lined up in color order like a fresh pack of Crayolas. They’re clutched in the hands of teenagers to young professionals, pulled out of fanny packs at raves, or perched on the table during an after-work drink.
On TikTok, young people are selling DIY Elf Bar props or examining each of the brand’s 28 flavors as if they were reviewing a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. One user (@ishaq_jpeg) even makes cocktail recipes inspired by Elf Bar’s most popular flavors. The popularity of disposable vapes has skyrocketed over the past 12 months, according to Dan Judd, head of digital at Vape Superstore, one of the UK’s leading online vape providers. “Elf Bar sales have grown exponentially, growing about 450% in the last six months,” he says. “We have also seen a new type of customer who is only buy disposable devices.
Elf bars are made in China, the base of their headquarters, and first launched in 2018. Classic flavors include “razz blue lemonade”, “passion fruit kiwi guava” and “sour raspberry blueberry — all of which have been turned into TikTok cocktails. The most popular pen, the Elf Bar 600, is disposable and comes pre-filled with 20mg of liquid nicotine salt infused into the flavored e-liquid. They last around 600 puffs per bar, with prices starting at £4.95 on Vape Superstore, or five bars for £20. By comparison, a 20-pack of Benson and Hedges costs more than double the price and comes with 24mg of nicotine per pack. Both contain a similar amount of nicotine – it just depends on how quickly a smoker can get through them.
Until the appearance of the Elf Bar on the UK market, vaping was mostly associated among young people with Ethan Bradberry, a character from the viral comedy sketch video Nation Vaping. In the clip, first posted to YouTube in 2016, comedian Ethan Klein walks around New York parodying vapers. From there, the “vape bro” archetype quickly morphed into a meme, with vaping becoming a universally recognized code for the ridiculously uncool. When the meme was all the rage in 2016, anyone holding an e-cigarette between their fingers or puffing into a vape ring would be mocked – similar to how “Crypto Bros” is currently pushed back to 2022. Now, however, Elf Bar users shamelessly flood the smoking areas of nightclubs and proudly advertise their favorite flavors to strangers. It’s almost as if vaping has shed its “vape bro” connotations, supported by a generation embracing the sleeker, sleeker bars.
“Part of the appeal of Elf Bar disposables is a combination of the product’s wide availability, affordability and portability, and the fact that it’s easily shareable,” says Hazel Cheeseman, assistant general manager of Action on Smoking Health (ASH).
The appeal attracts even non-smokers. Ali, a 22-year-old dental student at King’s College London, says he never flirted with the idea of smoking cigarettes but found himself drawn to Elf Bars the year last when he started seeing them in stores. “There are just loads of colors and you get excited about all the different flavors,” he says over the phone, his Elf Bar crackling along the line as he takes a deep breath between sentences. “It’s a hobby. I roll over in my bed and my Elf Bar is there. It’s just practical.
Ali says he and his friends try new flavors together, and even different disposable brands like Elux. “I never used to see so many people with Elf Bars, but now I’m going to leave the house where I live in North London and see everyone using them,” he says. For 21-year-old Nirvana Henry, who works at a members’ club in Soho House, it’s the convenience of being able to vape indoors or in a nightclub that won her over. And not having to smell cigarette smoke afterwards. “I vape when I’m getting ready for my day, whether I’m walking to work, or to the pub or the club.” Perhaps the appeal is as simple as that – Elf Bars fit right into the lives of young people. Plus they taste good.
In 2003 e-cigarettes were developed in Beijing by pharmacist and inventor Hon Lik as an alternative to conventional smoking and hit the UK market in 2007. Cheeseman says the products served their purpose. “Vapes have helped thousands of people quit smoking,” she says. “Vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking and e-cigarettes have a very important public health role to play.”
Gillian Golden, CEO of the Independent British Vape Trade Association (IBVTA) agrees with this view. “Disposable vapes have helped a huge number of adult smokers break the habit. We’ve seen that over the past 18 months, and it’s one of the reasons we’ve had one of the lowest smoking rates ever in the country. But Golden remains skeptical of the disposable nature of the Elf Bar and similar single-use products – like the Elf Bar’s clumsier sibling, the Geek Bar. “There are cheaper ways to vape with a refillable, refillable device that’s better for the planet,” she says. These are products like the Innokin EQ FLTR that come with 100% biodegradable filter tips, or e-cigarette products with longer battery life, like the Aspire Pockex.
Vaping, however, is as unchic as it was when Ethan Bradberry paraded through New York City – it’s just that Gen Zers are happily embracing the stickiness (and flaws) of devices. Vapes fail to replicate the elegance of smoking a cigarette. Remember Scarlett Johansson lights up effortlessly in Match point, and perch the vessel on her pursed lips? You won’t get that here. With their brightly colored highlighter pen aesthetic, Elf Bars just don’t evoke the same sweetness. Generation Z vapers know this. They are aware that smoking something that looks like a stationary object is extremely inelegant. They are aware that it is excessive to buy several bars each week. They are aware that the long-term effects of the Elf Bar are still unclear. They embrace it proudly, if slightly ironically.
The EU is currently trying to ban flavored vapes, while 18+ devices end up in the hands of children. But Gen Z’s nihilistic embrace of Elf Bars has transformed vaping from one of the most derided ways to pass the time into an essential accessory. Even non-smokers are getting into it. But behind the popularity of the pens, vapers are slowly beginning to question their attachment. Ali, along with his group of friends who also love Elf Bars, have all tried to break the habit, but continue to be drawn to new flavors. “The scary thing about Elf Bars is because it’s a new craze, we don’t even know the long-term effects,” he says curiously.
While it’s not entirely clear whether Ali is trying to convince me or himself, he seems determined to give up disposable vaping and change his lifestyle. “I know I can and will quit whenever I want.”