Fashion and Style

The Look of Vapes Has Changed. Here’s Why the Shift Has Experts Worried.

Alexa Addison remembers what vapes looked like when she was in high school. The dominant e-cigarette was Juul, a slim, black rectangle with sharp corners that resembled a flash drive.

By the time Ms. Addison, 19, started college at the University of North Carolina Wilmington last year, the vape du jour had shifted. She saw many of her classmates brandishing Elf Bars, brightly colored e-cigarettes that looked like ombré AirPods cases, with gently sloped chimneys for inhalation.

She bought flavors like piña colada and strawberry-kiwi, and took pictures when the candy-colored gradients of the devices coordinated with her outfits. Soon she found herself going through an Elf Bar a week. (Each one contains as much nicotine as 590 cigarettes, according to one estimate.) Ms. Addison said that during her period of most intense use, her gums turned gray.

“They looked really pretty, honestly,” she said of the devices. “I just never had an interest in vaping until the pretty ones started being sold.”

About five years after Juul became many people’s mental image for the word “vape,” e-cigarettes are in the midst of another face-lift. The understated look associated with Juul has been edged out by the rounded, vivid designs of Elf Bars and other brands, whose color schemes often correspond with their flavors.

In interviews, young people compared the appearance of these disposable e-cigarettes to candy, pacifiers, lip gloss and soap. “They almost look like toys,” said Carter James, 23, a music producer who lives in Brooklyn and said he stopped using e-cigarettes this summer.

Some public health experts are concerned that the playful appearance of these devices — which is neatly in line with the maximalist aesthetic preferences of Gen Z — may offer appealing new cover for nicotine products. Doctors say nicotine is especially addictive for young people, and research suggests that teenage vapers risk both immediate and long-term lung damage.

In combination with candy- and fruit-inspired flavors — a major focus of anti-tobacco groups — alluring vape packaging could steer young people toward e-cigarettes, several experts said.

“If it looks glamorous and it looks appealing, that’s going to be the first driver that will bring a horse to water,” said Brian King, the chief of the Food and Drug Administration’s tobacco center. “The flavors then get them to drink. And the nicotine keeps them coming back for more.”

Ms. Ducharme speculated that newer e-cigarette companies probably wanted to distance themselves from the look of Juul. “I’m not sure they went in the correct direction,” she said.

The bolder look of new, disposable e-cigarettes may correspond with a shift in some young people’s openness about vaping.

When Karely Alcantara, 21, began vaping in high school, most of her friends used Juuls, which were easily concealed from teachers and family members. Today Ms. Alcantara, now a student at the University of Maryland, sees people treating Elf Bars as ubiquitous accessories. She spots them at bars, in the cafeteria at her student center, and on TikTok and Instagram.

“Nobody’s trying to hide it anymore, because everybody vapes” Ms. Alcantara said. She said she stopped vaping last year with the help of a text-messaging program from Truth Initiative, a tobacco-control group. She is now a student ambassador for the initiative, a role for which she has received a stipend.

Many high schoolers who got hooked on Juul have aged into young adults with less oversight into their vaping habits, added Mr. James, the music producer. “The whole Juul wave was more about being discreet,” he said. “Now it’s like, you want to show it off.”

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