Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Young life: The vape craze

More young people are vaping than ever. Is the moral panic about their health justified?
November 3, 2022

From pubs to bars to bus stops, vapes are everywhere; sometimes it feels like you can barely walk five metres without striding into a blueberry-scented cloud of secondhand smoke. Sales of these electronic cigarettes are rapidly increasing. In the last quarter of 2021, the major online retailer IndeJuice saw a 279 per cent rise in sales of disposable vapes, with Elf and Geek bars the most popular brands.

This dramatic surge in popularity can largely be explained by a change in attitude towards vaping by young people: put simply, vapes have gone from cringe to cool. The “ELFBAR” brand  has been particularly influential in giving vaping a makeover—on TikTok, a platform dominated by Gen Z users, the hashtag #elfbar currently has over one billion views. Two years ago, I might have teased a friend for whipping out a clunky vape at the pub, but now I wouldn’t bat an eyelid at anyone sucking a sleek Elf bar.

Elf bars are the very definition of “cheap and cheerful”. They cost around £5, are available from most supermarkets, and come in a range of fun flavours and colours (like cotton candy, watermelon or blue raspberry). There’s no need to faff around with one—you just take it out of the packaging and start puffing. When it runs out, you chuck it in the bin—it’s not exactly eco-friendly! 

But can vapes replace cigarettes as a symbol of chic? Cigarettes, unfortunately for public health, will probably always be cool, thanks to the likes of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe making smoking appear impossibly glamorous back in the 1950s. But tobacco use is falling in the UK, from 19.8 per cent in 2011 to 14.1 per cent in 2019. I’ll admit, sucking a hot pink vape pen will never be the same as lighting a cigarette. But when the research so far suggests that vaping is around 95 per cent less harmful than smoking cigarettes, it’s surely good that this safer alternative is quickly becoming more socially acceptable. 

Naturally—as is the case with virtually any trend or fad among under-25s—there’s been an accompanying moral panic about vaping. Could vapes act as a “gateway” to cigarettes? Surely breathing in cherry-scented fumes all day can’t be good for anyone? Well—maybe. It’s claimed that Elf bars are highly addictive and depending on the model they contain up to 20mg of nicotine. And worryingly, it’s still not clear what the long-term effects of vaping may be. Experts have urged young people not to buy vapes unless it’s a way to wean themselves off cigarettes. But it does seem to be an effective tool in doing so. Nearly two thirds of vapers are ex-smokers, and according to research from UCL, electronic vapes may have helped 18,000 people in England quit smoking. 

As youth trends go, vaping is on the tamer side: generations before ours often turned to smoking cigarettes as a way of rebelling, so who’s to begrudge us the small pleasure of toking on a banana-flavoured vape? It might be a lot better for your health—or it might be only a little—but life’s too short not to treat yourself, now and then