Vaping is endemic in British schools – and Elf Bar is at the heart of it

Elf Bar e-cigarettes
Elf Bar e-cigarettes

You may not know what an Elf Bar is by name, but you’d almost definitely know one by sight. These brightly coloured, super-sweet e-cigarettes are everywhere: lined up behind newsagent’s counters; littering parks and pavements outside schools and colleges; behind a cloud of cloying vapour as you walk down the street.

Around 2.5 million Elf Bars are sold in the UK each week. They are prefilled with nicotine-infused liquid in flavours including blue razz lemonade, cherry cola and watermelon. Each contains 600 “puffs” and roughly the amount of nicotine found in 40 cigarettes.

The Government promotes e-cigarettes as a useful tool for smoking cessation in adults, and recently announced free vaping starter kits for one million people in a bid to help them quit. But the number of children taking up vaping having never smoked is cause for concern.

“Although vaping is generally much safer than [smoking] cigarettes and vapes include a fraction of the chemical products, they do still contain chemicals that are being inhaled into our deep lung tissue,” says Gareth Nye, programme leader for medical science at the University of Chester. “The simple answer is we don’t know enough regarding the long term impact on children.”

A panic over underage vaping swept America before it landed here. Last month, the e-cigarette brand Juul reached a $462 million settlement with six US states, settling lawsuits that claim they aggressively marketed their products to teenagers. Juul is widely thought to be responsible for a sharp increase in youth vaping. In 2019, sales were soaring, and the company had an astonishing valuation of $38 billion. Some 27.5 per cent of American high school students reported using e-cigarettes, and over half of those used Juul.

Now, figures show US teenagers are turning to Puff Bars, which are disposable, scented and brightly coloured – just like Elf Bars.

In the UK, experts are concerned levels of vaping are soaring too. Elf Bar is a Chinese-owned company that is now worth £322.1 million in the UK. It also manufactures another disposable vape model, Lost Mary, which is popular among Gen Z, and boasts of “phenomenal retail success” in this country according to its chief executive, Victor Xiao. But at what cost?

Data shows that, while young people who vape are in the minority, the number is increasing. The latest Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) survey found that while the number of 11- to 17-year-olds who regularly use e-cigarettes is relatively low, it rose by 41 per cent between 2021 and 2022, from 3.3 per cent to 7 per cent. The number of children who had tried an e-cigarette rose from 11.2 per cent to 15.8 per cent. For the first time, disposable vapes were the most popular product, and Elf Bar was the most popular brand.

Some 46.5 per cent of 11- to 17-year-olds get their e-cigarettes from shops, despite the fact that it is illegal to sell e-cigarettes or vaping products to under-18s. They are sold for the pocket money-friendly price of £4.95 and are easy to get hold of without ID.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty namechecked the brand when he told MPs in February that e-cigarettes are “an addictive product” with “unknown consequences for developing minds … the rates of vaping have doubled in the last couple of years among children. So that is an appalling situation.”

Disposable vapes are wreaking such havoc in schools that teachers are resorting to searches and suspensions; they struggle to stop students vaping in stairwells and flushing vapes down the toilets. Pupils hide the devices in toilet roll holders, behind ceiling panels and under their clothes, and disrupt lessons by sneaking out to vape.

“They’re everywhere. We’re seeing it right down to Year 7; it’s endemic right across the school,” says one secondary school teacher, a head of Year 10, who is speaking anonymously. “The impact on learning is catastrophic; students who were A-grade now have a distinct lack of focus, which we believe is caused by becoming addicted to vaping.” He says some pupils are distracted and agitated if they are not allowed to go to the toilet in lessons and get their fix.

A desperate plea from a teacher friend led Simon Hassett to design a specialist vape detector for use in schools. A total of 170 schools have ordered the VapeGuardian sensor, which is the first of its kind in the UK. The data from schools that have it installed shows that children are being caught vaping an average of 22 times per day.

As a father, Hassett is gravely concerned about the normalisation of vaping among schoolchildren. “The average Elf Bar contains 20mg of nicotine. The presence of this highly addictive substance explains why so many pupils are finding it difficult to go through the day without vaping,” he says. “We are unwittingly creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.”

On April 11, the Government launched a call for evidence to counter rising vape use in under-18s and is said to be considering a potential ban on flavoured vapes and their display in shops. “The recent increase in vaping among children appears to have been driven by the emergence of a new class of vapes: disposable products,” it said.

In July last year, Elf Bar was reportedly flouting advertising rules by using paid-for influencer marketing on TikTok, according to an investigation published in The Observer. TikTok removed two accounts following the investigation, but more recent reports suggest that the promotion of disposable vapes via user-generated videos has continued unchecked. The hashtag #ElfBar has 1.8 billion views on the platform to date.

“In recent months there have been increased reports of user-generated content (rather than vape industry-generated) on social media portraying vapes as an attractive product. This has included videos and other content created by under-18s or appearing to be aimed at under-18s,” wrote the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities in the call for evidence.

It is easy to see how Elf Bars have taken off among teens. They are far more stylish than the chunky refillable e-cigarettes historically used by ex-smokers, and have become something of a status symbol. “They’re available for pocket money prices on every street corner, and they’re currently packaged more like a sweet or a toy than a smoking cessation device,” says Deborah Arnott, ASH’s chief executive.

“Vaping is a highly effective quitting aid for adult smokers, and ASH supports the Government’s plans to provide them as part of an offer of support to quit,” says Arnott. “However, vaping isn’t risk-free and [health minister Neil O’Brien’s recently announced] commitment to enhanced enforcement to tackle the scourge of youth vaping is an important step forward.”

The long-term health implications of youth vaping are unknown, but the environmental impact is already apparent. Each device contains a lithium battery and heating coil, which turns the nicotine e-liquid into a vapour for inhalation. Two disposable vapes are being thrown away every second in the UK – over a year, that is enough lithium to make roughly 1,200 electric car batteries.

Within the industry, Elf Bar is seen as particularly opportunistic and, in some cases, irresponsible.

“They’re not a member of the UK Vaping Industry Association and they have just come over and seen an opportunity. They don’t seem to care so much about doing things properly in the sense that other companies have taken it into their hands to recycle their vapes, which costs them money, but it means they’re not chucking lithium into landfill,” says Mark Oates, co-founder of the consumer advocacy group WeVape, which promotes vaping as a healthier alternative to smoking for adults.

“There’s a fear among people who choose to vape rather than smoke that [Elf Bar] is damaging how people see vaping.”

Despite its rapid rise, Elf Bar is no stranger to controversy. Although the Advertising Standards Authority released a statement saying there was no evidence vaping firms are deliberately targeting children, a question mark hovers over its marketing tactics.

More trouble came in February this year, when some Elf Bar models were removed from sale in supermarkets after they were found to contain outsize cartridges with over 50 per cent more than the legal limit of nicotine (in the UK, the limit is for e-cigarette cartridges to contain no more than 2ml of an e-liquid with a nicotine strength of no more than 20mg/ml). Elf Bar said the products, which are legal elsewhere, had “inadvertently” ended up on UK shelves and apologised.

Elf Bars - Patrick T. Fallon/ AFP via Getty Images
Elf Bars - Patrick T. Fallon/ AFP via Getty Images

“Dentists are reporting increases in dental problems which are 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,” says Nye.

He points to glycerin and glycol, two chemicals used in Elf Bars and other vaping e-liquids. They are used in food colourings and are safe to eat, but there is no robust evidence on breathing them in: “We must consider that eating and inhaling are significantly different … The heating of these chemicals has been shown to lead to the formation of formaldehyde and acetate, which are both carcinogens. Whether this is significant or not we don’t know, as [the] science struggles to keep up.”

There is no doubt that e-cigarettes are helpful for adult ex-smokers. But, like Juul, it’s high time that Elf Bar ran out of puff.