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5th March 2022

Disposable vapes – what’s the catch?

Disposable vapes make up a fifth of the market, with low prices and bold flavours. What’s the catch?
Disposable vapes – what’s the catch?
vaping360 @Flickr

Vaping – it’s really, really popular. 3.6 million people vape daily, and the number is only increasing. This is thanks in no small part to JUUL, who in 2015 introduced a small, sleek, USB form factor, which younger users seem particularly drawn to. The brand might only be 7 years old, but it already dominates three quarters of the £15.5 billion vaping market.

Disposable vapes have recently enjoyed a resurgence since their sales were actually in decline before JUUL. Unlike JUUL vapes though they can’t be recharged, and their pods containing the all-important e-liquid are not replaceable.

However, they still represent 20% of the market. They imitate the small, trendy form factor that JUUL nailed back in 2015 – only they’re now even cheaper. £4 for 600 puffs can seem like a very attractive option for cash-strapped youngsters. The names are also seemingly aimed at newer, younger users, with flavours, like “blueberry blast” that wouldn’t look out of place on a pick-and-mix counter. They give the impression of a cheap, accessible, and tasty alternative to smoking.

Pay peanuts, get monkeys

The problem starts with the price. You get what you pay for, and anyone selling a vape pen for £4 is going to have to cut corners somewhere – or perhaps almost everywhere. Most cheap, disposable vapes lack a microcontroller, a piece of circuitry needed to make sure the vapour output is properly controlled.

A study done in the US investigated the consequences of this missing circuitry, finding that as a result, the vapour emissions varied wildly. Some disposable vapes had nicotine emissions 50% higher than advertised, and almost all emitted way more carbonyls than the JUUL-branded comparison. Carbonyls can include compounds classed as carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and toxic, and are the primary toxin tested for by health officials. Well-made vapes with proper microcontrollers emit far fewer carbonyls than traditional cigarettes.

In addition, the study found that nicotine in vapes was far more palatable form than in cigarettes, for example, because of a special reaction with acid in the vapour. This reaction makes it less obvious how much nicotine you’re vaping, so you are way more likely to get nicotine-dependant (as many young people already have).

What happens to a vape when it’s finished?

At the moment, there is no real way to recycle your used disposable vape. None. It seems some users have a dumping ground in their house for used vapes, a sort of graveyard for brightly coloured plastic bodies.

The problem reached such a level that an Australian engineer-turned-entrepreneur, Alex Fairclough, put out an offer online to collect and recycle used vapes. His DMs where promptly flooded by people from Queensland to Sydney, whose drawers where packed with plastic deadweight, with no way to rid themselves of it.

You shouldn’t have to be an electronics expert to recycle a vape pen, but the structure of disposable vapes mean that it is necessary. In these vapes, the battery and e-liquid pod are connected, making it mixed waste, something which e-waste recycling centres simply won’t take. Separating them involves wire cutters, a steady hand, and the real possibility of starting a lithium fire – don’t try it at home!

Lithium batteries, if punctured, can very quickly catch fire, and then even explode. It is a small wonder so many people just dump them in the trash, where a whole other set of problems start to emerge.

Those batteries are not great for the environment – with heavy metals like cobalt, lead and nickel leaking into soil and landfills, local ecosystems can suffer. It then goes on to affect humans, as aluminium and lithium has been found in trace amounts in drinking water.

Rechargeable vapes can have their battery section taken out, and accepted by an e-waste centre, but the gross, soggy e-liquid capsule cannot. Soaked in nicotine and other harmful neurotoxins, that’s destined for the tip.

What does this all mean?

Vaping is seemingly better for your health and the environment than cigarettes, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a great alternative. Critics have argued that rather than being a smoke-free alternative for long-time smokers, they often end up hooking first-time users on nicotine. For example, Rebecca Williams, a cancer researcher and studier of tobacco marketing tactics for 20 years, feels their low entry barrier and candy-reminiscent flavours are there to entice younger, even underage users to get into vaping.

Policy makers are being urged to do more to address this growing segment of the vaping market, but action is slow, with the UK being yet to take any meaningful action. In the meantime, do yourself a favour: if you must vape, maybe consider getting a more expensive vape, because those cheap, disposable hits? They may be cheap for a very good reason.

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