Alexa Addison has vivid memories of what vapes looked like during her high school days. Back then, the most popular e-cigarette was Juul, a slim and black rectangular device with sharp corners that resembled a flash drive. However, when Addison started college at the University of North Carolina Wilmington last year, the vaping trend had shifted. Elf Bars, brightly colored e-cigarettes with a design similar to ombré AirPods cases, were the new craze among her classmates. These devices had gently sloped chimneys for inhalation and came in flavors like piña colada and strawberry-kiwi. Addison found herself going through an Elf Bar a week, despite each one containing as much nicotine as 590 cigarettes. She even took pictures when the candy-colored gradients of the devices matched her outfits. However, during her period of intense use, she noticed that her gums had turned gray.
The appearance of e-cigarettes has evolved significantly over the past five years. The understated and discreet look of Juul has been replaced by the vibrant, rounded designs of Elf Bars and other brands. These devices often come in color schemes that correspond with their flavors. Many young people find these playful designs reminiscent of candy, pacifiers, lip gloss, or soap. Some public health experts are concerned that these visually appealing designs, which align with Gen Z’s maximalist aesthetic preferences, may serve as attractive packaging for nicotine products. Nicotine is particularly addictive for young people, and research suggests that teenage vapers are at risk of both immediate and long-term lung damage. When combined with flavors inspired by candy and fruits, these appealing vape packaging designs may entice young people to try e-cigarettes.
Psychologist Susan Linn, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, likens the appearance of Elf Bars to Joe Camel, an infamous cartoon character that was retired due to criticism of its appeal to children. Linn argues that Elf Bars’ juvenile appearance, coupled with their bright colors and rounded shapes, is specifically targeted towards adolescents and even children who are naturally attracted to such features. Linn emphasizes that tobacco companies often use cartoons or colorful packaging to make their products appear harmless and fun to young people. However, studies show that about one in 10 high school students have used an e-cigarette in the past month, and flavored, disposable devices like Elf Bar have been gaining popularity among middle and high school students.
Elf Bar, also known as EBDesign and EBCreate, entered the US market in November 2021 and quickly became the leading e-cigarette brand among student vapers. Similar visually appealing products include Flum Pebble, Juicy Bar, Air Bar Nex, and Lost Mary. Although Elf Bar has not been authorized for sale by the FDA, it is readily available in stores. The manufacturer, IMiracle Shenzhen Technology, argues that its products, which carry a clear warning label that nicotine is addictive, are intended for adult consumers. However, critics maintain that these devices’ physical design is clearly developed to appeal to Gen Z’s visual sensibilities.
Today’s young customers are drawn to vibrant color palettes and playful silhouettes that stand out on social media, rather than the minimalistic, tech-y look of earlier e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes are now being packaged to resemble beauty, cosmetic, and skincare products found on Sephora’s shelves. The pastel boxes in which these e-cigarettes are packaged align with the aesthetics of upscale beverage brands and Gen Z’s preference for woozy gradients. The physical appearance of these devices can sometimes belie their contents, making them appear harmless or even like everyday objects.
According to Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, the physical design of e-cigarettes like Elf Bar can be deceiving. Research suggests that teenagers become addicted to nicotine more easily than adults, and some health issues like heart disease, asthma, and bronchitis have been linked to vaping. Halpern-Felsher points out that Elf Bar, for example, resembles hand sanitizer, further emphasizing the deceptive nature of its appearance. The FDA has approved some e-cigarettes to aid adult smokers in transitioning away from traditional cigarettes. However, most flavored vapes have been banned due to their appeal to young people.
Studies indicate that factors like exciting flavors and social pressure encourage young people to try e-cigarettes. While limited research exists on how the physical appearance of the latest wave of e-cigarettes may attract young people, a British study found that colorful disposable e-cigarettes were viewed as trendy and cool by subjects aged 11 to 16. This distinguishes them from earlier e-cigarettes, which were clunky modular systems or simple white “cig-a-likes” designed to mimic the appearance of real cigarettes. Juul, released in 2015, disrupted the market with its sleek and discreet design, making it easy for young people to discreetly vape in schools. However, its association with marketing to minors and the subsequent health concerns led to its downfall, and newer e-cigarette companies like Elf Bar aim to distance themselves from this negative image.
The more bold and vibrant appearance of disposable e-cigarettes like Elf Bar aligns with a shift in young people’s openness about vaping. Unlike the days when Juuls were concealed from teachers and family members, Elf Bars are now treated as ubiquitous accessories. They can be found at bars, in cafeterias, and are popular on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Karely Alcantara, a student at the University of Maryland, notes that nobody tries to hide their vaping habit anymore because it has become so prevalent. Alcantara stopped vaping with the help of a tobacco-control group’s text-messaging program and now serves as a student ambassador for the organization.
In conclusion, the appearance of e-cigarettes has undergone a significant transformation over the past few years, with brands like Elf Bar adopting bright, playful designs. Some health experts argue that these visually appealing designs may entice young people to try e-cigarettes, particularly when combined with enticing flavors. However, the long-term health risks associated with vaping, especially for young people, remain a concern.