Good riddance to Elf Bars
They’re done. It’s over.
At Glastonbury this past weekend, the effects of post-pandemic socialising were clear in two regards. Firstly: people kept intermittently bursting into tears, overcome with emotion for apparently no reason. Secondly: Elf Bars were everywhere. At Worthy Farm, as it is in most major cities in the EU, you could not walk 400ft without accidentally colliding with a plume of blueberry or mango or (horror of horrors) banana-themed vape smoke. You cannot buy single use plastic bottles on-site, but you can buy single use plastic vapes, and clearly – judging by the number of hot pink, dayglo yellow and highlighter orange little pens littered around empty fields at 6am – around a quarter of a million people did. And now, half a week post-Glasto debauchery, everyone has depleted serotonin reserves and the kind of obvious, hacking cough that makes every open-plan office building sound like the inside of a Dickensian workhouse.
The ubiquity of the Elf Bar has become, perhaps unexpectedly, the definitive feature of post-pandemic socialising. They are on every night out. They are in every pub smoking area. They indiscreetly emanate from the top deck every night-bus home. Elf Bars are flourishing. The popularity of cigarettes, meanwhile, has been in decline for some time. In 2019 the CDC reported smoking had hit an all-time low for American adults, and while Brits have always smoked more, tobacco use is falling in the UK too. It declined to 13.8% in the first quarter of 2020, and that was even before every person you knew decided to use lockdown to embark on new and wholesome ways of life, quitting fags and embracing smoothies and multivitamins and sourdough loaves. At the same time though, disposable vapes were soaring in popularity to replace cigs, particularly for younger people. On TikTok the #elfbar hashtag has nearly one billion views, while a study published last month found that the percentage of vape users who opted for disposables had risen from 1% in 2021 to 57% in January this year. We are reaching peak Elf Bar.
And now the EU is like, enough. No more Elf Bars for you. You’re all going way too hard for Elf Bars. No, what they actually said was: the EU executive branch is proposing a total ban on the sale of flavoured heated tobacco products as part of its plan to fight cancer. And that includes Elf Bars. In fact it seems specifically related to the popularity of Elf Bars. In a statement published yesterday, the European Commission said the proposal was a response to a “significant increase” in the volume of sales. "With nine out of ten lung cancers caused by tobacco, we want to make smoking as unattractive as possible to protect the health of our citizens and save lives,” the statement went on to say. A caveat: Of course, with the UK now technically not a part of the EU, the effects on Elf Bar consumption in Britain post-ban might not be very dramatic. You could probably still buy Elf Bars in London, but there might be some sort of Elf Bar backstop in the Irish Sea. You might have to go to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead to stock up on Elf Bars and then stand outside nightclubs selling them along with balloons. The availability of Elf Bars in Northern Ireland would be a contentious and shadowy issue.
But even if the UK doesn’t follow EU guidance anymore, in this case I would argue they should. It is time to ban the Elf Bar. Because the Elf Bar is embarrassing. If the EU truly wanted to discourage young people from smoking disposable vapes they wouldn’t bother drawing up legislation to ban them. Banning something only imbues it with a coolness that Elf Bars don’t deserve. Instead – and I realise this is always what is suggested as an alternative to legislation to ban substances, but hear me out – they should funnel the money earmarked for legislating into educational programs. They could simply go to schools, offices, smoking areas and stand there with a megaphone and announce in a deadpan voice that Elf Bars Are Uncool.
The UK could show solidarity, providing their most painstakingly styled plain-clothed police officers (still looking painfully obvious in cargo-shorts and box-fresh trainers) to infiltrate nightclubs and look down their nose at anyone who reeks of blue bubblegum. The CDC could get involved too; they could outsource the work to TikTok influencers, populating our FYPs with sponsored content about how Elf Bars are now on the same level of chic as patterned flares or knowing what Hogwarts house you are in. Social media giants could join the fray. Instagram could promote photos of celebrities looking demonstrably uncool with their vapes if only to reveal that incredibly few of the rich, famous, beautiful people among us have ever been seen with one (here’s Johnny Depp with a vape, here’s Bella Thorne promoting Swisher, no photos of celebrities using disposable vapes exist other than this). Twitter could push the kinds of articles that induce full-body second-hand cringe in their attempts to making vapes seem exotic and fun (“Elf Bars need to be less sexy” – The Spectator, “Fox News’ Sean Hannity’s promise to vape live on-air and cops can ‘come and arrest him’ if Biden bans Juul” - The Daily Mail).
But alas, we don’t think of Elf Bars as embarrassing yet. And it makes sense that they have become such a huge part of our lives. Not to sound like the kind of nutcase that talks about their rights being infringed by Brussels, but obviously we don’t need the EU to tell us that Elf Bars are bad for us. The little pieces of coloured plastic are only as ubiquitous as the health risks everyone knows are associated with them; health risks that are even worse, everyone says, than what we already know about cigarettes. Plumes of vape smoke are as inescapable as the sentiments which always immediately follow them: “you know one of those is like 400 cigarettes” someone will say. Or 600 cigarettes. Or those mega-vape bars which are rumoured to have like, 6000 fags worth of nicotine in them. The very fact that we know is intrinsic to their increasing popularity.
Summer 2022 has emerged as an era of nihilism in fashion and culture. The clean-girl aesthetic has been replaced with a feral alternative and an indie-sleaze revival has revealed our thirst for a pre-social media era of messiness. It makes sense that this nihilism, after an extended period of wholesomeness, has led to a rise of Elf Bars. “Anecdotally, you hear a lot of stories about New Yorkers who are celebrating being out of their homes with excess,” one spokesperson for the American Lung Association told The New York Times at the beginning of the year, talking about the rising use of nicotine (cigarettes and vapes) in younger people.
“After all, why not?” You are asking, Bilbo Baggins-like, clutching your little mango flavoured pen like it’s the one true ring, or something (I didn’t watch the film). “Why shouldn’t I buy another Elf Bar? The world will collapse into a climate-induced fireball in like eight years and I’ll never own a house. Nothing means anything. I love kiwi passionfruit guava.” A month after the Times investigated the rise of nicotine, writer Allison P Davies published her viral essay A Vibe Shift Is Coming, predicting Elf Bar Summer months before it happened. “Our aesthetic and [behaviour] are certainly shaped by a sense of doom,” she argues. “There’s a nihilism to the way people dress and party; our heels get higher the closer we inch to death. It’s why people are smoking again.”
This culture of nihilism is exactly why the EU Commission's war on Elf Bars is doomed to fail if it is led only by sensible and productive, helpful health experts; the kind of people ready to make Elf Bars more popular by virtue of trying to eliminate them from our lives. Everyone knows Elf Bars are toxic. They know they’re bad for them and they do them anyway, partially out of convenience, sure, but partially out of a sense of collective cultural impending doom. If Elf Bars are to be truly vanquished then they must be fought on the battlefields not of nihilism but of aestheticism. If you’re not scared of black lung, be scared of social pariahism. If you don’t care about your health, at least care about the fact they are deeply, fundamentally, totally unchic.