Puff Bar Culture

Image Credit: Nery Zarate on Unsplash

Olaf Samuel breaks down the recent increase in the popularity and use of disposable vapes.

Let’s talk about puff bar culture. Puff bars come in vibrant colours, fit in your pocket and are sold in a variety of enticing flavours in almost every shop. Disposable vapes have flooded the market and made their way into the lives of younger audiences, spawning a whole new generation of nicotine users, fogging up smoking areas of clubs as well as school toilets. 

Puff bars' distinctive flavours, which include Watermelon, Strawberry Lemonade, Banana Ice, and Blue Razz, are what appeal to younger consumers, particularly teenagers. According to an American study, “Among middle and high school e-cigarette users, use of emerging disposable e-cigarette devices with similar appearance to pod vapes increased by 400% and 1000%, respectively, between 2019 and 2020.” A similar study in the UK has shown that the use of disposable vapes among 18 year olds rose from under 1% in 2021 to 57% in 2022. The sleek design and accessibility of disposables have become a hit in recent years, but it’s not just smoking that attracts younger people to vaping. It has now become the social norm amongst these age groups. 

Vaping related content on social media spiked significantly between 2020 and 2022, with  #Elfbar currently having over 1 billion views worldwide on Tik Tok alone. It comes as no surprise, then, that vaping, something that prior to the existence of puff bars was rather uncool, has seen content going viral globally. The National Institute of Drug Abuse found that teenagers vape to experiment, to enjoy the flavours, to have a good time with friends and because it looks cool. When it comes to adult vapers, the biggest selling point of puff bars is their practicality and affordability. There is no refilling, no buying pods, it’s just as simple as buying one and vaping on the go. There is also an element of herd mentality to puff bars, which were rather uncommon in smoking areas in early 2021, but are an essential element of a night out today, undoubtedly attracting far more social smokers. 

Among middle and high school e-cigarette users, use of emerging disposable e-cigarette devices with similar appearance to pod vapes increased by 400% and 1000%, respectively, between 2019 and 2020.

A puff bar is compact, sleek and colourful and in a pencil case or a teenager’s backpack is hardly distinguishable from a highlighter. The branding and marketing of various disposable vapes has a clear target audience, teenagers, which is evident from the countless social media posts promoting disposables. Tik Tok is saturated by content ranging from puff bar reviews, puff bar comedy skits, giveaways and ads. Some companies have gone so far as selling puff bars online, packaged and concealed in a different item like a make-up bag, to give underage teenagers a parent-proof way of buying them. These companies speak right into the minds of younger audiences, causing disposable vapes to fly off the shelves.  

Puff bar popularity can also be attributed to their countless fruity flavours. Cotton candy, cola and mango are only some flavours that drive their sales. The sweet aftertaste of vapes makes them far more appealing than regular cigarettes and for many people have been a viable substitute to tobacco. Another factor to consider is price. Elf Bars, the most popular brand in Ireland, retail at €8 and last for up to 600 puffs, which is as long as smoking 20 cigarettes on average, while being significantly cheaper than a pack of cigarettes. Their affordability and ease of access is a catalyst to teenage vaping, and there is little use in making ethical arguments in the presence of untapped profits. 

One of the most frequently cited justifications for selling vapes is that they help people stop smoking, however given the design and marketing strategies of puff bars, it seems unlikely that this was their original intent. Consequently, they are harvesting previously untapped profits by selling to a whole new generation of vapers. 

There has been evident widespread panic about the use of synthetic tobacco products and their health related consequences. Are they really a gateway to inevitable cigarette addiction or potentially serious health problems? 

Vaping is largely marketed as a way to quit smoking and a ‘healthier alternative’ for smokers of tobacco. Opinions on this are polarised depending on who you ask, but what about the scientific evidence? Public Health England found that ‘e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than smoking’.  The study also found that e-cigarettes are not in fact acting as a route into smoking for children and non-smokers. The idea behind using vaping to quit is based on the absorption of nicotine, due to the lower, more alkaline nature of nicotine aerosols found in vape smoke. Studies have found that nicotine delivery is faster leading to a reduction in vaping frequency and exposure to harmful aerosols. 

The problem with quantifying the adverse health effects of vaping is that we simply do not have enough data to formulate a clear cut answer as to whether vaping is the safer option. We know that puff bars generally contain water, flavour solvents and nicotine, and while these solvents are considered safe to ingest orally by the FDA, the effects of inhaling them as aerosols have yet not been fully investigated. Another factor to consider is that cigarettes are uniform on the market, while there are a lot of varied brands of vapes, using different types of solvents and heating coils, which might lead to varied health effects. Emerging data links vaping to chronic lung disease and asthma, as well as cardiovascular diseases.  

Puff bars are a hot topic both in the US Congress and the EU Parliament and regulatory bodies are looking to limit the scope of availability of disposable vapes in these respective jurisdictions. Whether they bring an end to puff bar culture, or simply regulate it more and ensure industry standards are upheld is yet to be seen, but as of now disposables are here to stay and their effects on the puff bar generation will only become more apparent in the future.