‘I didn’t even smoke beforehand’: How Elf Bars took over uni campuses across the country
The Tab’s investigation reveals more than half of students have used an Elf Bar since the start of term
“I remember it being quite sudden actually,” says Emily*, a third year student at the University of Manchester. “None of my other friends really smoked or vaped beforehand. And then it was only a couple of months after I left uni at the end of second year, I was on placement and when I visited and came back in September, just everyone had them.” Emily bought her first Elf Bar a little over a year ago, now she gets through one in the space of two days.
“I don’t want to vape forever,” she says with a hint of unease. Emily is not the only one. At the University of Bristol, third year student Alfie is worried. “Because of how easy they are to purchase, Elf Bars almost feel inescapable,” he says. Whilst in her fourth and final year at Bristol, Mia* explains: “Everyone I know believes it’s just a uni thing for them, they are stuck in this very temporary mindset.”
Emily*, Alfie and Mia* have all become Elf Bar users in the past year. Emily and Alfie readily admit they are now addicted, Mia says she was addicted but is now stopping: “I’ve bought my last one and it’s finished now!”. Emily and Mia have asked to remain anonymous, they aren’t quite ready to share their university Elf Bar habit with their families. They aren’t alone however. Over half of UK university students have used an Elf Bar this term and more than a quarter of students say they are now addicted to them, The Tab’s investigation into Elf Bar usage has found.
The survey, which measured the responses of more than 18,000 students across 25 universities, is the first of its kind to reveal just how popular the brightly coloured disposable vapes have become and the growing number of students building a dependence on them. Nationally, 53 per cent of students said they had used an Elf Bar since September. This figure however varied widely between different campuses. At the University of Oxford, the figure stood at a modest 38 per cent. Less than a mile away, at Oxford Brookes, 67 per cent of students say they have used an Elf Bar.
The study also explored the rate at which students are using Elf Bars. Each bar is estimated to contain the nicotine dosage of 48 cigarettes. Of the more than 9,700 students who have used an Elf Bar, 60 per cent say they buy a new bar less than once a week. This would suggest the majority of students are casual users. Four out of 10 students also reported only using an Elf Bar in social settings. However, there remains a significant proportion of students for whom this is more than just a casual habit. 25 per cent of users said they bought a new Elf Bar at least twice a week – the nicotine equivalent of 96 cigarettes every week.
Despite the high nicotine dosage, a majority of students (51 per cent) told The Tab they had not previously smoked cigarettes before they started using Elf Bars.
Over a third of Elf Bar users said they vaped every day and 20 per cent would either finish an entire Elf Bar in one day or a singular night out.
The findings by The Tab stand out against previous research by public health charity, ASH (The Action on Smoking and Health), which found just 11 per cent of 18-24 year olds used vapes in their study published in August. However, this discrepancy could point towards just how quickly young people are turning to disposable vapes, with the research struggling to keep pace. The same study by ASH showed a jump from 2.8 per cent of 18-24 year olds using disposable vapes in 2021 to 48 per cent in 2022.
Dr Lion Shahab, professor of health psychology at University College London and co-director of UCL’s Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, described the proportion of non-smokers using Elf Bars as “surprising and concerning”.
“I would have assumed that something like 80 per cent would have been previously smokers and maybe 20 per cent who weren’t. So that is something that jumped out at me and is somewhat concerning because as you can imagine the argument in the tobacco control community is that e-cigarettes are a harm reduction product and harm reduction for existing smokers.”
Mia, who began using Elf Bars in February had never smoked beforehand. She quickly noticed herself becoming addicted to the nicotine rush from Elf Bars. “I could just use them everywhere,” she says. “Even if you just go to the toilet or are walking somewhere, you can have a few puffs. When you are in bed, you can drag on it.”
Within a couple of months Mia says she would limit herself to buying one Elf Bar a week, although it would only last her three to four days. She says she knew they were bad for her and wanted to cut down on her addiction.
“I didn’t smoke beforehand, but now I do smoke and I’ve increased it to wean myself off Elf Bars.
“All my mates have always socially smoked but then we all started using Elf Bars and that’s now actually all caused us to sober smoke and try and stop using Elf Bars.”
Dr Shahab says the overall number of university students vaping doesn’t surprise him. He points to his department’s research which shows a 56 per cent increase in the number of 18 year olds vaping between January 2021 and April 2022.
“To some degree, it doesn’t surprise me that increasingly quite a lot of students might be using [Elf Bars],” Dr Shahab explains. “If you think about the cigarette in the first place and how it became popularised, the introduction of a cigarette machine made smoking much more affordable, much cheaper, and very convenient – you could buy it already pre-rolled, until then you would have to roll your own.
“These Elf Bars have a couple of things in common insofar as they are very easily available. They are sold everywhere now. Not only are they very prominently displayed but they are also quite effective nicotine delivery devices because when e-cigarettes first became popular, they already had disposables but they were nowhere as effective at delivering nicotine.”
20-year-old Alfie agrees. “I think the ease of the Elf Bar is the main draw,” he says. “I originally switched to Juul to stop smoking but found that it would run out of battery on a night out. At which point, even if you have spare [Juul] pods, you’re out of nicotine. On the other hand, Elf Bars can be easily replaced. Lost and bought again. Finished and quickly purchase from an offie (off-license) without needing to be charged.”
Contrary to their bright and colourful appearance, Elf Bars are the joint-strongest disposable vape you can buy in the UK, meeting the legal limit of 20mg/ml of high-strength nicotine salts e-liquid. Each bar costs between £4-7 and it’s not unusual to see individual shops promote multi-buy deals. Dr Shahab suggests one reason for their rising popularity with university students is their cost-effectiveness.
“In the context of the cost-of-living crisis, I can see that students might use them to substitute for instance buying so much alcohol on a night out,” he says.
Alfie however, who started using Elf Bars to wean himself off smoking, says the rate at which he’s buying Elf Bars is “financially draining”. “Unlike smoking, you can vape in your house which makes it more sociable for pres or just chilling with your mates.” Currently he says he buys two to three a week. “They have an illusion of being cost effective at £4-7 but the reality is a pouch of baccy is more cost effective.”
It’s not just at pres or on a night out when students are pulling out their Elf Bars. Emily says at Manchester she’s seen students vape in the middle of lectures, on the bus, during half time of a university sports match they were playing in – which “feels like an oxymoron”, she adds. Mia also says she sees students regularly vaping in her university gym, “someone finished their session and walked out, Elf Bar immediately in their mouth”. She also says she’s been in small classroom seminars where students take out their Elf Bar when the lecturer’s back is turned.
Perhaps what makes the explosion in Elf Bar popularity all the more eye-catching is the whiplash speed at which vaping has gone from being famously uncool to the norm. “I noticed around October last year, it was no longer tragic and every student basically had one,” Mia says. “Before that, I hadn’t really noticed and my friends and I kind of mocked people who used them.”
Emily describes the change as “being sudden” and says TikTok had a large role to play in all her “friends who have previously not vaped who are now vaping with Elf Bars”. “I think they would just see videos and more people would get to know what an Elf Bar was and then would be making their own videos with an Elf Bar in them and then it just perpetuated the cycle.”
“People saying ‘Oh what’s your favourite flavour?’ so you would be inclined to go out and try that one. You’d also see videos of people colour coordinating their vape to their outfit.”
Dr Shahab also stresses the importance of observing “social psychology concepts” and in particular norms. “The more people you see in your environment using these, the more normalised it becomes and because a lot of people are using them, it’s reinforcing to a student that ‘Oh I might use one as well'”.
At its core then, should we be worried about the rising nicotine dependence among students? Dr Shahab argues it is desirable for a certain proportion of university students to use vapes because a proportion of them would otherwise have gone on to smoke cigarettes.
He believes the discourse of comparing the nicotine dosage in vapes to cigarettes can be counterproductive as it can often be miscommunicated to mean one Elf Bar causes the same damage as 48 cigarettes. In 2019 Public Health England found e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful to your health than cigarettes.
“If you assume this 95 per cent harm reduction is roughly correct. In practical terms that means you could say one year of smoking is equivalent to 20 years of vaping. So if you have a normal person’s lifespan of 80 years, if you vape your whole life and you started in your 20s, it’s the equivalent of three years of smoking.”
“The question really becomes should the field of tobacco control be concerned about the health harms or is there a more moral crusade about whether we want to stop addiction?
“Is there something wrong with someone being addicted to the product? It becomes less of a question of medical concern, if you assume that there’s minimal harms associated with nicotine itself and becomes a question of whether there should be a generation of people who are addicted to a substance and you have to ask yourself, are we concerned about people being addicted to coffee?”
By Dr Shahab’s suggestion, the surge in Elf Bar popularity has only been a good thing for ex-smokers Emily and Alfie. What our investigation suggests however, is that for every Emily and Alfie, there can also be a Mia who’s picked up smoking as a result of starting to vape.
“We have to keep monitoring,” Dr Shahab concludes. “We have to see whether or not this is a blip or whether this is something that is going to continue to keep going in the future.”
Elf Bar has been approached for comment.