Why Elf Bars and Geek Bars Are Suddenly Everywhere

Gen Z have a newfound love of disposable vapes. Unfortunately, finishing a whole bar is the equivalent of smoking up to 50 cigarettes.
A group of children surrounded by Elf Bars
Image: Owain Anderson

Just when you thought shisha pens were the pinnacle of trendy cigarette alternatives, Gen Z is obsessed with a new iteration of e-cigs: Elf Bars and Geek Bars. They are small, colourful and flavourful. They are also, crucially, disposable and cheap. I’ve seen them set off fire alarms in my school and litter the smoking areas of clubs; my social media feed is bombarded by posts of young people “tooting” (I didn’t come up with this slang, but trust me, everyone I know says it). Unlike shisha pens, these disposable vapes don’t need constant charging and re-filling; you don’t mind if you lose one or have to chuck yours in the bin as a teacher approaches. They come in a range of flavours, with names like Pink Lemonade, Cotton Candy Ice, Kiwi Passion Fruit Guava and Blueberry Sour Apple – and they all cost less than a fiver each.


But there’s a catch: Smoking a whole bar is the equivalent of smoking up to 50 cigarettes.

I became an Elf Bar fanatic – or, to put it another way, an addict – after a friend brought me one during one of our chaotic journeys to school. She was only 17 at the time, and she’d bought it from our local corner shop. We were blasting “Milkshake” by Kelis in her car and tooting away. I coughed profusely and didn’t exactly like it, but that was immaterial: I was having fun, my friends were hysterical and it made great for Snapchat content. So, despite it being illegal for under-18s to vape or smoke, it's easy for me to understand why so many young people feel attracted to, or peer pressured into, it. In fact, recent figures from the UK charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) found that 11.2 percent of 11- to 17-year-olds in the UK tried vaping in 2021. 

Accessibility is thought to be one factor in the rise of these disposable vapes: off-licences sell them, and unlike cigarettes and booze, there seems to be confusion and ambiguity around vapes - many shops think the legal age is 16. Young people can also buy them online from places like Amazon and eBay, and of course, many purchase them directly from other teens. (Geek Bar did not respond to a request for comment about under-18s consuming their products.)

Amy, a 16-year-old student from Bradford, says she’s addicted to Elf Bars. Like every other young person I talked to, she spoke under condition of anonymity. “Honestly, it’s so bad - but I am addicted to them, I go through about two to three [Elf Bars] a week”, she says. “My friend brought me one from our local shop when I was 15 - and ever since then, I have been addicted to them.”


They’re disrupting schools, too – the #elfbar hashtag on TikTok, which already has 666 million views and counting, is full of videos of students vaping in class or making jokes about vaping in front of teachers. Ben, whose school is threatening him with permanent exclusion if he is caught vaping again, admits he’s guilty of the latter: “We all do it in school, not just me – it’s fun, trendy and cool. Well, until you get caught or set the fire alarm off.” 

According to the consumer advocacy group Drug Watch, the common side effects of vaping are a burning or scratchy feeling in the mouth, lips and throat, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath and headaches. More serious long-term side effects, suggested by CDC and FDA reports in the US are lung injuries, known as EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product-use associated lung injury). There is, of course, also the very real prospect of nicotine addiction. 

There is a serious North-South divide around underage vaping in England, with more than a fifth of teenagers aged 15 in Yorkshire and the Humber – where I live – underage vaping, which makes them three times more likely to do so than the equivalent age group in London. In late 2021 a primary school in Scotland warned parents via email about the recent trend among young pupils of smoking what the Daily Record paper, which reported on the email, called “dangerous vapes”. The email made references to fears about vapes exploding, potentially causing facial burns and disfigurement. It also noted that children were “finding used vapes and 'Elf Bars' laying around the local community”. 


In Bradford earlier this year a headteacher sent a strict message to parents about what would happen if students were caught vaping. The letter read: 'I am growing increasingly concerned by the number of students who have access to vape pens... We have had a number of incidents involving these over the past few weeks in school.' He made it clear that he has a zero tolerance approach to vape pens, and that any student found with one, or using one on-site, would receive a fixed-term exclusion.

This isn’t the first letter sent by a headteacher in Bradford about vaping - there already have been several. When I asked the Deputy Leader of Bradford council, Cllr Imran Khan, about the rise of vaping in schools, he told me that "schools are places where children need to be safe and focused on learning".

"Vaping is an issue in schools across the UK, and pupils need to be aware of the laws and risks around it,” he added. Khan also said that the council were supporting schools in attempts to understand what is driving pupils toward vaping and to increasing awareness among young people around the risks of the habit, in order to, “keep themselves and others safe and healthy.”

Recent UCL research estimates that there are 74,000 e-cigarette users aged 16 to 17 in England. “If the upper estimates are true, we would estimate that of the 74,000 e-cigarette users aged 16 to 17 in England, around 7,000 would become ever regular smokers as a consequence of e-cigarette use," writes lead author Dr Emma Beard of UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health, going on to note that “approximately 50,000 smokers are estimated to quit per year as a consequence of e-cigarette use”. The report’s findings did not suggest vaping or e-cigarettes were a major gateway to cigarette smoking among young people - though this doesn’t, of course, negate the health implications of vaping.


One of the most common claims used by Gen Z on social media (and an excuse used both by Amy and Ben in our conversations) about consuming Elf and Geek Bars is that they just aren’t aware of the risks. Medical professionals like @dental_babe8 are attempting to reach younger audiences on TikTok; in a video that has been viewed nearly five million times, the qualified dentist warns that using Elf Bars can cause a "higher risk of gum disease and tooth loss", as well as “cavities, toothache and bad breath”.

Similarly, Dr Onkar Mudhar (@dronkarmudhar) has used TikTok to raise awareness about the toxicity of Elf and Geek Bars: "Smoking a whole Geek or Elf bar is the equivalent of about 48 to 50 cigarettes. These [bars] contain two milligrams of nicotine salt, so [the] equivalent 20 milligrams of nicotine."

But it doesn't quite seem like the message is hitting home. Among 18-year-olds, a non-peer reviewed survey found that fewer than one percent had used disposable vapes. By January 2022, it had shot up to 57 percent. Just as with shisha pens, it seems unlikely the problem with Elf and Geek Bars will go away. Until then, don’t be surprised if you see these abandoned vapes clogging up the bins in bars, pubs – and in the corridors of your local school.