A black street sign with an anti-smoking/vaping sign and yellow letters which read, 'no smoking, no vaping'.

The Elf Bar epidemic: is vaping harming our health?

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Worried that your vaping habit is starting to become an issue?

Picture this: you’re walking down a busy high street, slaloming between the two-way traffic on a crowded pavement, when all of a sudden, you’re engulfed by a cloud of strawberry bubble gum-flavoured smoke — the culprit, a teen with a rainbow coloured elf bar.

The experience, it seems, is becoming more and more frequent, with evidence showing that disposable vapes grew in popularity by up to 15.2% last year, compared to in 2021.

This is particularly worrisome after a recent investigation by the Mail revealed that Britain’s bestselling vape brand, Elf Bar, has been selling e-cigarettes that are at least 50% over the legal limit for nicotine. Findings revealed that the popular Elf Bar 600 model contained at least 40 milligrams of nicotine per millilitre — equivalent to 96 cigarettes — while the legal UK limit is 20 milligrams per millilitre. The investigation led to supermarket giant Tesco removing hundreds of Elf Bar models from its stores, and Morrisons launching its own internal probe into the product.

A spokesperson for the brand said: “It appears that e-liquid tank sizes, which are standard in other markets [such as the US], have been inadvertently fitted to some of our UK products. We wholeheartedly apologise for the inconvenience this has caused.”

The heightened nicotine levels prove an increased risk to the UK’s young adults aged 11 to 17, of whom 15.8% admitted to trying a vape product in 2022, despite them being illegal to sell to those under 18. Former Conservative health minister Dr Caroline Johnson is currently calling on MPs to back her decision to ban vaping products within the UK, stating that the prohibition would prevent an “epidemic of teenage nicotine addicts”.

A black-and-white closeup of a young woman vaping an Elf Bar as she breathes out a cloud of smoke, the picture framed to hide her identity.

What exactly are the known side effects of vaping?

It was previously reported by the NHS that vaping could be a healthier alternative to smoking. While it’s true that e-cigarettes contain less contaminants than tobacco (vaping pens typically use an atomiser and battery to produce flavoured vapour, which is created by heating a liquid that often contains nicotine), the long-term impact of using disposable vapes is unknown.

“Until further research has been carried out, it’s unclear which is the safer option of the two,” says Sohail Ahmed, co-founder and clinical pharmacist from Core Prescribing Solutions. “The long-term effects are still very much unknown, though what we do know is that it’s definitely more harmful than we first thought. Several studies have surfaced recently, commenting on the link between vaping and lung scarring, asthma, cancer and addiction.”

If legislative advice from the World Health Organisation is followed, e-cigarettes could soon be banned. But Sohail argues that investment should be made to educate the public on the harmful effects of both vaping and smoking first, in addition to providing further support for those wanting to quit, including increased smoking cessation, or quitting, services.

Why do people start vaping in the first place?

It could be argued, in fact, that the most dangerous quality of these vaping devices is their addictive nature — causing people who’d never previously smoked to subject themselves to a range of potentially harmful side effects, though original guidance suggested that they were in fact a healthier alternative to smoking.

“Before I started vaping, I used to only smoke maybe one cigarette a night when I was drinking,” says Claire Humphrey*, a teaching assistant from Croydon. “It wasn’t a regular thing for me to smoke. Now, I take multiple ‘vape’ breaks a day, and spend at least £15 on vapes per week — amounting to around £50 a month, if not more.”

Claire started smoking Elf Bars during nights out with her friends. Before long, she was reaching for it first thing in the morning and taking regular smoke breaks at work to fulfil her habit.

“A friend offered me one on a night out, and ever since then, I’ve actively gone out of my way to buy them. They’re definitely more addictive than cigarettes, as someone who used to smoke way back when, and successfully managed to quit. I honestly think I’d really struggle to stop smoking Elf Bars.”

What’s worse, Claire says, is the rising number of children in her secondary school smoking e-cigarettes. “We actively have to confiscate them from pupils, and I think that’s largely due to how easy they are to buy.

“These vapes come in bright neon colours, and they taste like sweets. I don’t blame kids for buying them, because I know I’d have done the same when I was younger.”

“Whether they’re completely banned or not, there definitely needs to be more regulation on them.”

With new side effects being reported on a regular basis , including the recently reported popcorn lung phenomenon, and the introduction of pilot schemes designed to discourage vaping in teens, it’s likely it won’t be long before we see tightened regulations surrounding Elf Bars and other vaping devices, or perhaps, the prohibition of sale altogether.

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A hand taking an Elf Bar vape from a supermarket shelf.

*Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee.

Words by Layla Turner

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