Don’t trust the ELF!
In Norse mythology, an Elf is a rather friendly supernatural creature, also present in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. But a much more real and dangerous ELF is circulating among us! Of all the disposable electronic cigarettes[i] that invade our schools and whose marketing specifically targets adolescents, one brand is particularly worrisome: the ELFBAR brand. The market for disposables is changing very quickly and new brands and models are constantly coming onto the market. ELFBAR dominates the Swiss market today, and seems to have dethroned the initial Puff Bar brand. But is an ELFBAR better than other disposables? This by far doesn’t seem to be the case and we will try to gather the most recent information on these products here.
from Luciano Ruggia
The colourful little electronic ELF from China!
Like the vast majority of electronic cigarettes, disposable or not, the ELFBAR comes to us from the world capital of chemical cocktails: the city of Shenzhen in China. According to videos released by Imiracle (Shenzhen) Technology Co. Ltd., the parent company of the ELFBAR, their products are sold in over 80 countries and are the dominant brand in the global market. The ELFBAR celebrated its fourth anniversary on social media in October 2022, thus its initial launch took place in October 2018.
Even if the ELFBAR also exists in a version with pods (capsules), therefore as a rechargeable basic device or even in an open system, the vast majority of ELFBAR products are disposable. ELFBARs are sold by the number of puffs they contain, which can range from 500 to 5,000 puffs. The ELFBAR website itself states that one ELFBAR 800 is equivalent to 60 cigarettes. This would mean that one ELFBAR 5000 is equivalent to the consumption of 375 cigarettes, or just under 19 packs of cigarettes. The ELFBAR site also boasts that the first 10 puffs are more potent than in other disposable e-cigarettes and that the taste and strength (“output”) are more stable to the end. This result seems to be achieved by using more powerful batteries than the other products and up to 850 mAh.
Nineteen packs of cigarettes, at an average price of CHF 7, would cost a total of CHF 133, while the ELFBAR retails in Switzerland at the price of CHF 29.90 each. Online, it is possible to benefit from substantial reductions, depending on the volume purchased. Thus on one of the sites consulted[i], for an order of 40 ELFBAR 5000s, the price falls from CHF 29.90 to CHF 24.90, a difference of CHF 5 per piece (18%). If one orders before 2 p.m., delivery is guaranteed the next working day. Finally, payment is made by invoice: “With us, you can easily order your ELFBARs by invoice. You will only pay later”. Apart from simply checking a box confirming that one is of legal age as a form of self-declaration, there is no method of effective age verification. This allows anyone, including minors, to order a nicotine product from this site.
Fruity, iced (Ice, Razz) or mentholated flavours predominate. Only a few products taste like tobacco, and even these are often modified, such as ‘tobacco cream’. New, increasingly improbable flavours are constantly being added to the available palette, such as ginger-cola, watermelon bubble gum, or even fancy names like "elfsuka" (apparently a mixture of iced red fruits) and "elfbul ice”. Some flavours mimic well-known drinks, such as the Gee 600 “Geebull” – an explicit homage to the Red Bull drink, or cocktails like rum cola or mojito. Special series, an excellent marketing tool, also appeared for the Christmas 2022 period with festive flavours such as cinnamon orange, red velvet cake, or chocolate brownie cookies. It is interesting to note here that as of 1 October 2022, China has banned on its own territory the sale of electronic cigarettes with flavours other than that of tobacco.[ii] However, their exports remain perfectly free.
Nicotine: not at all, or too much?
The ELFBAR site – as is often the case on many other electronic cigarette sales sites – indicates that certain products contain no nicotine, and these are often presented first and prominently. However, if these nicotine-free products do exist, they pose several problems. First is the difficulty of being sure that the products really do not contain nicotine, given the absence of any independent control or verification before they are placed on the market. And even if they do not contain nicotine, the unknown chemical cocktails they contain are not without health consequences. On the other hand, nicotine-free products are of no great interest to a nicotine-addicted person, except perhaps in a transitional phase towards total cessation. In any case, one only has to visit a store that sells disposables to quickly realise that even when nicotine-free products are present, they remain very much in the minority.
In Europe and Switzerland, the maximum authorised nicotine dosage is 20 mg/ml, often indicated as a percentage, i.e. 2%. This already represents a “strong” dose. Above 21 mg/ml, the dosage is considered to be very strong. Despite this maximum limit, many ELFBARs with nicotine levels of 30 mg/ml or even 50 mg/ml produced for the American or Asian markets have been sold in Switzerland and other European countries – illegally.[iii] It is unclear what type of nicotine the ELFBARs contain. Some products obviously contain nicotine salts (protonated nicotine), as in the Gee 600, but other cases prove impossible to know if synthetic nicotine is used. But never mind all that – ELFBAR proudly certifies that their products contain no gluten! Gluten? Really?
While the official ELFBAR website clearly touts the cigarette equivalent of its products (stating, for example, that one ELFBAR 800 is equivalent to about 60 cigarettes), based on "rigorous laboratory results",[iv] other commercial websites reject this comparison in an attempt to downplay the importance of nicotine, protesting that it's like comparing apples to oranges. Other equally false ideas are frequently propagated by manufacturers and sellers. An English site continues to present the argument that electronic cigarettes are 95% less dangerous than traditional cigarettes – a claim without any scientific basis that has already been widely denounced. Moreover, they don’t hesitate to affirm that in electronic cigarettes “…there is nothing more addictive than nicotine itself, which researchers say is not very addictive at all. So vape!" For them, nicotine is nothing more than a mild stimulant with beneficial properties – the addictive properties of nicotine are attributed to other substances such as MAOIs (Monoamine oxidase inhibitors) and ammonia. It goes without saying that these amalgams and juxtapositions have the sole purpose of selling the products and go against all serious scientific evidence.[v]
Even content claims on ELFBAR packaging should be viewed with suspicion, as a recent case in the UK has proven. In February 2023, the ELFBAR 600, the most widely used ELFBAR, had to be completely withdrawn from the English market because independent laboratory tests had shown that they exceeded by 50% the maximum permitted dose of nicotine of 30 mg/ml. The major supermarkets even banned the brand from their shelves following these revelations. The company "sincerely apologized", claiming that it had been done "inadvertently". The ELFBAR brand, which launched in England only in 2021, now sells 2.5 million ELFBAR 600s a week, at the price of £5.99 each. Annually this represents at least 130 million pieces for a total of more than £778 million. And this only for this version of the ELFBAR, while the company markets several others. Finally, it should be noted that, of the English young people ages 11– 17 who admitted to having vaped in 2022, more than half had used the ELFBAR, i.e. some 100,000 young people.[vi]
The ecological impact of the ELFBAR really seems to be one of the least concerns of the company or its distributors. On its website, a large distributor is very clear – just throw them away like any other object.[vii]
Although further down the page they qualify the statement by leaving the choice to do a little better to those who are really concerned: “If you’re concerned about recycling, the best option you have is hazardous waste recycling.” It is implied that if you don't care, you can just do as you please. They just ask for the ELFBAR not to be thrown on the ground: “If the right thing for you is simply to put them in the trash, do that. They’re called disposable for a reason. Just don’t litter.”[viii]
On the official website or on the official social networks of ELFBAR, no matter how much you look for information on the correct way to recycle these products, you will find absolutely nothing. It is clear that we cannot trust the ecological conscience of this industry. This is not new, the tobacco industry has for a long time treated us to smoke and mirrors with its half-truths.
An ELFBAR – it doesn't matter how bad it is, as long as it's authentic!
One of the great concerns of the Imiracle company is that of knock-off products. The “real” ELFBAR has a production date, an expiration date, and a lot number on its packaging, as well as a QR code that can be scanned to verify that the product is not an imitation. So the fact that the product is a real ELFBAR should therefore reassure us? We think this is nothing more than a marketing gimmick, especially given the problem of these products exceeding the legal nicotine dosages on the English market.
Counterfeit ELFBARs have been a problem for the producer since the brand’s launch and Imiracle has gone to extraordinary lengths to combat these imitations. The company claims to have cracked down "on more than 120 counterfeit production and sales targets, including factories, warehouses, logistics and foreign trade companies, seizing more than 2 million finished counterfeit ELFBAR products, millions of packaging boxes, anti-counterfeiting codes, partly finished vape pipes, and other accessories”.[ix]
In the USA, Imiracle had to stop marketing its products under the ELFBAR brand after a legal case brought by a competitor. VPR Brands, based in Florida, was the first to register this name in 2018. The ELFBAR will now be marketed in the USA under the Ebdesign brand.
While on the topic of imitators, we should note that Imiracle considers their own copying of their competitors’ products as a horse of a different colour. Indeed, we can discover on the internet that they produce a series of "heated tobacco products", IQO with TQS sticks, which look just like PMI's IQOS. These appear to be mainly intended for the Russian market.[x]
An ELF hiding an ogre?
But who is hiding behind this company from Shenzhen? Despite our research, we were unable to find any precise information about Imiracle. We don't know who owns it, what their profits are, or even how many products they sell worldwide.
We know that the company is present in more than 80 countries in the world and in practically all European countries. Many of their products are extensively marketed in the Russian language.
Production, sales, and profit figures are also real mysteries. However, based on the above-mentioned profit of more than £778 million in England, or USD 951 million, we can estimate their worldwide profit to be in the tens of billions of dollars.
In some cases, alliances are created in order to expand the market. Thus, in May 2022, the Flawless company, a California company and one of the largest e-liquid distributors in Europe, joined forces with ELFBAR to produce the disposable Gee 600, available in 16 flavours, mainly for the English market and specifically for the sector of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG).[xi] Indeed, the Gee 600 is sold at £4.99, while the ELF 600 is sold at £5.99.
Even if the market is certainly more fragmented than the tobacco market, also with the presence of new players, mainly Chinese, we must clearly speak today not only of "big tobacco" but also of "big vape".
ELFBAR and TikTok
In March 2023, US Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat, New York) called on the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to intervene against these products. According to Schumer, the use of these disposable electronic cigarettes increased by 1,000% between 2019 and 2020 among American college students, and 400% among high school students. Schumer pointed out that ELFBAR uses influencers directly on TikTok to promote these products.[xii]
A walk on TikTok is quite instructive because there we find millions of videos on these products. Under the hashtag #elfbar we see 1.7 billion views and under #elfbars 290.4 million views. The TikTok app had already been analysed more systematically in relation to other hashtags such as #PuffBar. The results are just as striking: the 10 most-watched videos had millions of views each, and the contents related to nicotine or addiction were in the majority. Among these 10 most popular videos, two explicitly contained promotional messages and two clearly featured minors.[xiii] While this latest study was unable to demonstrate whether influencers are paid by the industry, others have been able to do so, including showing that the company Juul, of which Altria was one of the largest shareholders, had used influencers on Instagram.[xiv]
Can we trust the ELF?
Obviously not! If the brand produced by one of the largest vaping multinationals dominating the markets doesn’t even know exactly how much nicotine is in their products, how could we trust their statements about other potentially harmful elements contained in their liquids?
We know very little about the company that produces the ELFBAR. Transparency is totally lacking, which seems to be the norm for these Chinese companies. Recycling of their products seems to be the least of the company’s concerns – their main concern being fighting off knock-off brands. This last element teaches us that these products are very easily counterfeited and that the Shenzhen company’s only concern is their profit.
[i] https://elf-shop.ch/ (consulted on 31.03.2023) The web page Elf-shop.ch connect to another page called e-zigaretteria.ch, which indicates that it is managed by a company called Distrocorps AG based in Baar. The relation between this company and Imiracle is not clear.
[ii] Das, Shanti; Unguoed-Thomas, Jon; Luis, Yasmeen (2022): China bans fruity vapes – but not their export to the UK. Popular disposable brand will still be able to sell products in Britain, despite being accused of flouting advertising regulations. In The Guardian, 10/16/2022. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/oct/16/china-bans-fruity-vapes-export-disposable-brand-britain.
[iv] https://www.elfbar.com/product/Elf-Bar-Disposable-Pod-Device.html (consulted on 27.03.2022)
[v] https://vaping360.com/learn/how-much-nicotine-is-in-a-elf-bar/ (consulted on 27.03.2022)
[vii] https://vaping360.com/best-beginner-e-cigs-vapes/best-elf-bar-flavors/#how-do-i-dispose-of-my-elf-bars (consulted on 26.03.2023)
[viii] https://vaping360.com/best-beginner-e-cigs-vapes/best-elf-bar-flavors/#how-do-i-dispose-of-my-elf-bars (consulted on 26.03.2023)
[ix] https://vapinusa.com/blogs/blog/whats-going-on-with-elfbars (consulted on 26.03.2022)
[xi] https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/disposable-e-cigarettes-market-report (consulted on 31.03.2023)
[xiii] Tan, Andy S. L.; Weinreich, Erica (2021): #PuffBar: how do top videos on TikTok portray Puff Bars? In Tob Control 30 (6), pp. 712–713. DOI: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2020-055970.
[xiv] Tan, Andy S. L.; Weinreich, Erica (2021): #PuffBar: how do top videos on TikTok portray Puff Bars? In Tob Control 30 (6), pp. 712–713. DOI: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2020-055970.