The past 12 months has seen a shift in young adults’ nicotine habits
The culture of ‘social smoking’ among 18-30 year olds appears to be shifting, amid the rise of disposable vapes. Instead of picking up a pack of cigarettes before a night out, many will opt for a tasty, safer alternative.
As a former social smoker, I can speak from a place of experience when I say, “I wish that modern disposable vapes had been available when I was a university student”. In the mid 2010’s, the culture among my peer group would be to buy a pack of cigarettes purely to smoke during a night out. I joined in willingly; it seemed fun. However, if there were a few cigarettes left over, you would find yourself finishing the pack throughout the week. You could find yourself slowing slipping into a less manageable, more insidious smoking habit.
This was the case for me, and 6 months into my first year at Uni, I was smoking 4 – 5 roll-ups a day. I have now made the switch to vaping. However, I have to question whether my 3-year smoking habit would have even begun if disposable vapes were as prevalent (or for that matter “good”) back then as they are now?
I know what you may be thinking… e-cigarettes are designed to help people quit smoking, and not for young adults to use a night out. This is true, and e-cigarettes used as a smoking cessation aid still account for the vast majority of the market. For some people however, disposables are the perfect pre-emptive strike. They can help nip their smoking habit in the bud, before it has even fully formed.
This change in young adults’ nicotine habits could de-normalise smoking for a generation. Why is this social shift change so prevalent right now? The answer is simple… the rebirth of disposable vapes.
The rise of disposable vapes
It’s strange how consumer trends can go full circle. Food & drink, health & beauty and the fashion industry all see insurgences of particular fads, trends and hot products. The vaping industry is no different. However, this latest insurgence, or in fact resurgence, appears to be much more than a flash in the pan. It could prove to be revolutionary in de-normalising smoking for the current generation of 18-30s.
Disposable vapes have experienced exponential growth in the past year. Geek Bars, Elf Bars and indeed Totally Wicked disposable vape pens have sold in their millions. These basic yet effective products are now available in tens of thousands of outlets up and down the UK, and further afield. More or less, wherever you can pick up a pack of cigarettes you will almost always be able to pick up a disposable vape. Garage forecourts, convenience stores, supermarkets and even some Post Offices stock some form of the product.
Modern disposables tend to have very strong, very sweet flavours. They are incredibly convenient. There is no need to refill or recharge, you simply dispose of the device once it is finished. This is not a new concept; disposable vapes have been around for as long as vaping has been in the UK. However, it is only within the last 18 months, that manufacturers have managed to produce products with such vibrant flavours and impressive vapour production. This combination of enjoyable flavours and lack of longer term financial commitment make them the ideal alternative to social smoking.
Who is using disposable vapes?
Whilst all types of smokers and vapers are picking these devices up, they are proving to be particularly popular within one cohort of consumers. These are 18 – 30-year-old social smokers. These young adults would typically smoke a limited number of cigarettes, almost exclusively when socialising with friends. However, amid the rise of disposables, many are replacing a pack of cigarettes with a sweet tasting, safer alternative.
Picture a group of 20 year-olds walking through town on a Friday night. Remember when you’d overhear one say “Hold on, I need to grab a 20 deck before we get to the bar”? Well, this request is increasingly being replaced with “One sec, I’m just nipping in here for an Elf Bar”.
However, many of these young people will class themselves as non-smokers. So how should we consider the ethics of this social shift?
Social smoking vs social vaping
Is all this morally sound? In short, yes, it is. If the choice is between a pack of cigarettes or a disposable vape, the better option is always to vape. However, there will no doubt be those that claim that disposables are ‘attractive to young non-smokers’. Literally speaking, there is some truth in this, but that statement certainly does not tell the full story. The key thing to remember is that, in the main part, disposable vapes are only attractive to those ‘non-smokers’ who are in reality likely to smoke socially if there was no alternative.
This is backed up by research from the USA. Over the past 20 years, the youth smoking rate in the US has been declining substantially. According to data from the University of Michigan “Monitoring the Future” study, “Youth smoking dropped to an all-time low of 2.3% in 2021 – down from nearly 23% in 2000” (1). This drop has coincided with the rise of vaping, and an increase in youth vaping rates.
Despite this, in the USA in particular, there is a strong anti-vaping lobby. Many of the arguments used to attack the industry revolve around youth vaping. The claim is that young people begin vaping and then move onto cigarettes. However, the fact that youth smoking has reduced in that period strongly suggests quite the opposite. The gateway effect is leading young people measurably and significantly away from smoking
Nevertheless, US policy makers have remained hellbent on restricting the vaping industry. This has led to e-liquid flavour bans in certain regions of the States with the aim of stifling youth vaping. However, these flavour bans have actually had the reverse of their intended effect. Research from JAMA Pediatrics suggests that “San Francisco’s flavor ban was associated with more than doubled odds of recent smoking among underage high school students relative to concurrent changes in other districts” (2). This adds further weight to the suggestion that the availability of strong, sweet e-liquid flavours helps to keep down smoking rates in young adults.
Disposable vapes – Cessation aid or recreational product?
Disposable vapes will more often than not be regarded as a recreational product, rather than a smoking cessation aid. Despite this reputation, they could prove to be one of the most effective ways of reducing an entire generation’s smoking rates. They could do this by pre-emptively re-routing likely future smokers away from cigarettes at the very start of their nicotine journey.
They are convenient enough and enjoyable enough to disrupt the culture of social smoking. So while they may not be tagged as a cessation aid, they could very well prove to be one of the most effective ones yet, living under the pseudonym of a recreational item. This is hardly surprising when many younger people consider smoking to be a form of recreation. Why would a satisfying alternative be anything other?
Perhaps this is being done unwittingly and was not the intention of the manufacturers? Perhaps the lack of cessation signposting towards this product is in fact working its favour? Or maybe something can in fact be enjoyable while providing a huge social and health benefit? Either way, the rise of disposables and their impact on the shift in social smoking culture is a win for public health.
(1) Smoking rates decline steeply in teens in 2021. The Truth Initiative. Jan 2022. [Online] Available from: https://truthinitiative.org/research-resources/traditional-tobacco-products/smoking-rates-decline-steeply-teens-2021 [Accessed 9th March, 2022]
(2) A. Friedman. A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Youth Smoking and a Ban on Sales of Flavored Tobacco Products in San Francisco, California. JAMA Pediatrics. May 2022. [Online] Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2780248 [Accessed 9th March, 2022]