Enter a UK nightclub tonight and you will find yourself surrounded by an inescapable cloud of fruity smoke. This candied plume of vapour comes from an Elf Bar, Gen Z’s newest accessory. The Elf Bar is a new, pre-filled disposable vape device that’s slimmer and more compact than a normal e-cigarette. In windows of discount phone shops and off licences and sold inside nightclubs and supermarkets, the hot pink, neon yellow and red-berry pens are neatly lined up in colour order like a fresh packet of Crayolas. They’re clutched in the hands of teenagers right the way through to young professionals, pulled out of bum bags at raves or perched on the table at after-work drinks.
On TikTok, young people are selling DIY Elf Bar holders, or reviewing each of the brand’s 28 flavours as though they’re critiquing a meal at a Michelin-star restaurant. One user (@ishaq_jpeg) even makes cocktail recipes inspired by the most popular Elf Bar flavours. The popularity of disposable vapes has soared in the last 12 months, according to Dan Judd, head of digital for Vape Superstore, one of the leading online vape suppliers in the UK. “Elf Bar sales have grown exponentially, with around a 450 per cent increase in the last six months,” he says. “We have also seen a new type of customer who is only buying disposable devices.”
Elf Bars are manufactured in China, the base of their headquarters, and first launched in 2018. Classic flavours include “blue razz lemonade”, “kiwi passionfruit guava” and “blueberry sour raspberry” – 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 nicotine salt liquid infused into the flavoured e-liquid. They last for around 600 puffs per bar, with prices starting as low as £4.95 on Vape Superstore, or five bars for £20. In comparison, a 20-pack of Benson and Hedges is more than double the price and arrives 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 Elf Bar appeared on the UK market, vaping was most associated among young people with Ethan Bradberry, a character from the viral comedy sketch video Vape Nation. In the clip, first posted on YouTube in 2016, comedian Ethan Klein walks around New York City parodying vapers. From here, the archetype of the “vape bro” was rapidly turned into a meme, vaping becoming a universally recognised code for the ridiculously uncool. When the meme trended in 2016, anyone who held an e-cigarette between their fingers or blew a vape ring would be scoffed at – much in the same way that “Crypto Bros” are currently recoiled at in 2022. Now, though, Elf Bar users shamelessly flood nightclub smoking areas and proudly announce their favourite flavours to strangers. It’s almost as if vaping has been shed of its “vape bro” connotations, taken on by a generation adopting the snazzier, sleeker bars.
“Part of the allure of disposable Elf Bar products is a combination of the wide availability, the cheapness and portability of the product, and the fact that it’s easily shareable,” says Hazel Cheeseman, deputy chief executive of Action on Smoking Health (ASH).
The allure is attracting even non-smokers. Ali, a 22-year-old King’s College London dentistry student, says he never flirted with the idea of smoking cigarettes but found himself drawn to Elf Bars last year when he first started seeing them in shops. “There are just loads of colours and you get excited with all the different flavours,” he says over the phone, his Elf Bar crackling down the line as he takes a deep inhale in between sentences. “It’s a pastime. I roll over in bed and my Elf Bar is there. It’s just convenient.”
Ali says that he and his friends try new flavours together, and even different disposable brands like Elux. “I never used to see that many people with Elf Bars, but now I’ll leave the house where I live in north London and see everyone using them,” he says. For Nirvana Henry, 21, who works at a Soho House members club, it’s the convenience of being able to vape indoors or at a nightclub that won her over. And not having to smell of cigarette smoke afterwards. “I vape when I’m getting ready for my day, walking to work, or at the pub or club.” Maybe the allure is just that simple – Elf Bars slot neatly into the lives of young people. Plus they taste good.
In 2003, electronic cigarettes were developed in Beijing by pharmacist and inventor Hon Lik as an alternative to conventional smoking, and emerged on the UK market in 2007. Cheeseman says that the products have fulfilled their intended purpose. “Vapes have helped thousands of people stop smoking,” she says. “Vaping is substantially less harmful than smoking and electronic cigarettes have a very important public health role to play.”
Gillian Golden, CEO of the Independent British Vape Trade Association (IBVTA) concurs with this view. “Disposable vapes have enabled a very large number of adult smokers to break the habit of smoking. We’ve seen that over the last 18 months, and it’s one of the reasons we’ve seen one of the lowest smoking rates ever in this country.” But Golden remains sceptical about the disposable nature of the Elf Bar and similar single-use products – like the Elf Bar’s clunkier sibling, the Geek Bar. “There are cheaper ways to vape with a rechargeable and refillable device that’s better for the planet,” she says. Those are products like the Innokin EQ FLTR that come with 100 per cent biodegradable filter tips, or e-cigarette products with longer battery life, like the Aspire Pockex.
Vaping, though, is as un-chic as it was when Ethan Bradberry paraded around New York City – it’s just that Gen Z-ers are happily embracing the tackiness (and the flaws) of the devices. Vapes fail to replicate the elegance of smoking a cigarette. Remember Scarlett Johansson effortlessly lighting up in Match Point, and perching the vessel on her pursed lips? You won’t get that here. With their brightly coloured, highlighter pen aesthetic, Elf Bars just don’t conjure the same suave. Gen Z vapers know it. They’re aware that smoking something that resembles a stationary item is wildly inelegant. They’re aware that it’s excessive to buy multiple Bars each week. They’re aware that the Elf Bar’s long-term effects are still hazy. They adopt it proudly, though, even if slightly ironically.
The EU is currently trying to place a ban on flavoured vapes, while the 18+ devices are finding their way into the hands of children. But Gen Z’s nihilistic embrace of Elf Bars has transformed vaping from one of the most heavily derided ways to pass time into an essential accessory. Even non-smokers are joining in. But behind the popularity of the pens, vapers are slowly beginning to question their fixation. Ali, along with his group of friends who similarly love Elf Bars, have all been trying to break away from the habit, but keep getting lured back by new flavours. “The scary thing about Elf Bars is because it’s a new craze, we don’t even know about the long-term effects,” he says, inquisitively.
Though it’s not entirely clear whether Ali’s trying to convince me or himself, he sounds determined to ditch the disposable vape and shift his lifestyle. “I know that I can and will quit when I want to.”