Discover more from Never Hungover
Elf Bars and the End of Adulthood
An examination of the vape du jour and the age of absurdity
It’s Jazz Fest, and it’s raining – pouring, really – like I’ve been told it always does. The type of soak that sends people scurrying for cover, panting. Then, as if some cosmic punishment has been doled out and satisfactorily endured, the drops begin to slow from torrential to tolerable to pleasant. Before the sun can even think to poke out, the air is filled with a more earthly, welcome cloud. The Elf Bars are back out, and the natural order of things is beginning its tentative march to restoration. You can buy one of a relatively broad selection of flavors at the charmingly kitschy “general stores” dotting the festival grounds for a close-to-market price of $25. The rain hasn’t fully abated, but one can only wait so long.
The Elf Bar, in its ubiquity, is proof positive that the vibe has shifted. In the great race to corner nicotine addiction after the Juul was functionally legislated out of existence, the Elf Bar has emerged (at least to the eye test) in pole position. Smoke shops, once as crusty and incense-filled as one would expect a den of all somewhat-legalized sin to be, now feel like haunted candy shops. Behind counters dazzle an array of graded colors – a sharp red melting into sunny orange (flavor name: Beach Day), a cloud-white into vibrant rose (Fuji Ice), an almost imperceptible yellow (Mango Peach, oddly enough), a cascade of purple into Miami Vice-blue (Tropical Rainbow Blast, not to be confused with Miami Mint). There’s a beauty in the grotesquerie; to a government cracking down against deceptively-kid-friendly flavored vapes, the free market in its wisdom responds: fuck you, we’ll make vapes colored like fruits invented by third graders. For the first time in recorded history, consuming nicotine no longer looks cool; if experience in any social setting over the last year is indication, it may well not need to.
You can tell a lot about an era from how its inhabitants choose to poison themselves. The cigarette: the hallmark of a romanticized, eminently cool past; its toxicity and grotesque corporate tactics a fitting analogue to that bygone era’s deep cursedness. The Juul: the sleek, technologically perfected nicotine delivery device obsessed with its own marketability, justifying its existence by pretending to help adult smokers quit while earning its profits in fact by coaxing young people into an addiction their brains were never equipped to handle. The Juul, in its brief but powerful period of nicotine hegemony, as the 2010s internet’s version of a cigarette – a facsimile that could be both more powerful and more addicting, the device that could be brought everywhere, the effects on the body unknown but assuredly awful. Still, a product preoccupied with some level of translatability into reality as it once existed. The Juul was a product marketed and developed by an identifiable public corporation concerned with being sexy, being marketable, being cool. Like the internet, expansion and domination was its logic; government regulators took the product off the market, but like the internet, it unleashed forces that have more to say yet.
Where the Juul was obsessed with its reproduction of the analog cigarette, the Elf Bar and disposable vapes that have arisen in its wake pursue nicotine delivery with a sort of reckless, hypermaximalist abandon. The rise of disposable vapes feels like a sort of parable for a system of government constrained to tinkering at the margins of a market: the state bans flavored re-usable vapes from a known company, and a loophole births a rainbow of hulking disposable monsters.
The Elf Bar is unconcerned with the appearance of propriety. Stepping into the void left by an industry standard-bearer outlawed for having marketed nicotine to children, the Elf Bar is a colorful, ostentatious piece of plastic shaped most obviously like a sippy cup. The Elf Bar is an existential taunt. It’s worth surveying the Elf Bar’s flavors in full: Strawberry Mango, Strawberry Pineapple Coconut, Triple Melon, Watermelon Ice, Blue Razz Ice, Cranberry Grape, Energy, Guava Ice, Kiwi Passion Fruit Guava, Lemon Mint, Mango Apricot Peach, Mango Peach, Peach Mango Watermelon, Pineapple Ice, Red Mojito, Sakura Grape, Strawberry Ice, Strawberry Kiwi, Blueberry Ice, Cola, Kiwi Melon, Sweet Menthol, Apple Tobacco, Carambola Bamboo, Iron Guanyin, Red Grape Lime, Strawberry Pina Colada, Vanilla Tobacco, Triple Berry Ice, Avocado Cream, Beach Day, Black Winter, Blueberry Energize, Clear, Crazi Berry, Cranberry Punch, Cuba Cigar, Fuji Ice, Malibu, Miami Mint, Mixed Fruity, Peach Berry, Peace Ice, Pineapple Coconut Ice, Pineapple Strawnana (sic), Sunset, Strazz (?), and Tropical Rainbow Blast. Elf Bars are flavored, named, designed, and produced with the sort of mischievously youthful abandon typically reserved for a Coca Cola Freestyle.
The device is hopelessly childish. Ripping an Elf Bar feels less like smoking a cigarette or Juul than it does drinking an Icee too fast—a sharp headache, a throat coated in syrup, the immediate desire for more. Though every bar has its cool kids smoking cigarettes out front and its dead-enders fiendishly sucking their Juuls inside, life in 2023 smells most often like a cotton candy stand. The moral panic was once that children were getting addicted to products created for adults; what does it mean for adults to become addicted to vapes designed overtly to addict children?
The Elf Bar is a perfectly modern vice. It is tacky, garish, immediately disposable, and completely addicting. Its flavors and design conjure vibes and multiverse flora more than anything that exists in sordid reality, an endless array of superficial choice. Where cigarettes and Juuls came from identifiable corporations, Elf Bars and their progeny are far harder (and sometimes impossible) to track down; vaping dark money, it turns out, is delicious. The Elf Bar does not purport to be cool like a cigarette or plausibly healthy like a Juul – the appeal is pure nihilistic hedonism. There’s a certain knowing smirk you get while hitting an Elf Bar, a sort of laughing incredulity that this, of all the things, is how you’ve chosen to give yourself cancer. You can imagine the Earth, poisoned by landfills of these colored spouts, finding the humor in it all too. People argue whether the nihilism that dominates contemporary youth culture is due to a generation’s endemic overstimulation or to a knowledge that there is no future left. The Elf Bar is a fitting mascot for either interpretation, a portal to adulthood as permanent adolescence, the funniest way to die feeling young. Try enough, and you’ll unfortunately find a flavor you really quite like.
Thanks for reading Never Hungover! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.