The Precarious Rise of Disposable Vapes

To live in London in 2023 is to be perpetually engulfed in a cloud of cloyingly sweet vapor. The scent of Blue Razz Lemonade replaces traffic fumes; Banana Ice covers the rancid smell of rubbish.

Disposable vapes are everywhere. Sleeker-looking than their bulkier, refillable counterparts, easier to get your hands on, and cheaper too, their use has exploded in popularity among adults—and, alarmingly, among young people.

A 2023 report from the UK’s anti-smoking foundation, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), found that one in five children had tried vaping, with almost 70 percent saying their most frequently used vape was disposable. In November, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its annual National Youth Tobacco Survey; it found that disposable vapes were the most common type of ecigarette used by young people across America.

This popularity has caused something of a panic. Doctors are calling for bans; schools have set up vape detectors. In early 2021, both smoking and vaping were actually on the decline among young people aged between 18 and 24 years old in the UK. Then disposable vapes came along and numbers shot up.

The use of ecigarettes among young people has tripled in the past three years. This, says Harry Tattan-Birch, a research fellow at University College London, is “crazy.” And as vaping rates rise, you’d expect to see a correspondingly steep decline in smoking, but that also hasn’t happened—which means that overall nicotine use is rising in the UK. As a result, says Tattan-Birch, specific concerns about disposable vapes need addressing.

The big question is whether younger people who use ecigarettes would’ve likely started smoking regardless. Data shows there’s now a growing proportion of young people that probably wouldn’t have smoked otherwise who are using them, says Sharon Cox, the principal research fellow of the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group at University College London. The important thing now, adds Cox, is to work out whether this is a trend. Are disposable vapes simply a fad that’ll eventually fall out of fashion, or are young people going to continue to use them recreationally? Instead of waiting for that to play out, “now is the time to act,” she says.

A variety of things make disposable vapes so alluring to young people. For one, their low price—only about $6.20—is cheaper than the average price of a packet of cigarettes. Convenience is another factor. Instead of having to individually buy all the different parts required for a refillable ecigarette, disposable vapes are rigged and ready to go—“perfectly tailored to give a nice nicotine hit without much brain power,” says Hattan-Birch. They’re sleek and brightly colored. On TikTok, people match their vape to their outfits.

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