In his YouTube video, vape reviewer “thechasesmokes” sits encircled by friends in a bedroom.
He holds up a white Priority Mail envelope and dumps out 20 brightly colored flash-drive shaped vapes on the floor. He picks one up, reading aloud flavors for the camera: Cafe Latte, Lychee Ice, Watermelon, Strawberry ... the list goes on.
“This is like the new JUUL,” the YouTuber says, holding up a Cafe Latte pen and taking a hit. Soon after, he moves on to try the “most popular demanded flavor,” a bright yellow “Banana Ice.”
“This reminds me of the little banana candies you get in the mall,” he says. “Try this shit.”
A few years ago, this would have been a pretty standard scene — a typical vape “sesh” wherein a reviewer tries out dozens of flavors of an e-cigarette and posts their opinions online. But at this period in vaping’s short history, it comes as something of a shock. Flavored vape pens in the style of JUUL were supposed to be a thing of the past, as the last 18 months have proved to be a legal reckoning for e-cigarettes.
In 2018, scientists began to realize just how popular vaping was with teens, as record numbers picked up the habit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) 2019 numbers estimate that 27.5 percent of high schoolers had used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days.
The situation came to a head in July 2019, when a vaping-related illness called EVALI (E-cigarette or Vaping Product Use-Associated Lung Injury) emerged. EVALI has sickened 2,758 people as of February 4. The median age of those people is 24 years old. The illness was connected to THC vapes sold illegally through Instagram, Twitter, and elsewhere, but it created widespread pushback against all vape products.
Due to their popularity with teenagers, flavored vapes fell directly into regulator's crosshairs. On February 6, the Trump administration’s partial ban on selling flavored vape products went into effect. Pod-based vape companies, like JUUL, are now banned from selling any flavored pods, aside from menthol and tobacco.
The fall of JUUL coincides with the rise of something else: the disposable e-cigarette, and one company has risen above the rest, albeit under hazy legal circumstances. That company is Puff Bar, which sells vapes that come in bright, candy-colored boxes topped with a fluffy cloud logo – the same company that made the Cafe Latte-flavored vape held up in the YouTube video. The video had over 130,000 views, but the user has since removed it.
Puff Bar’s origins are “cloudier than most,” says Mark Anton, the executive director of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA), a national, pro-vaping advocacy group. He tells Inverse that he has heard of Puff Bar, but the company has made no contact with the trade group.
Inverse contacted vapor trade groups, people working in the vape industry, social media accounts claiming to represent Puff Bar, academics studying the products, labs, and law firms that all have ties to Puff Bar online.
They offered a similar response: Despite the popularity, no one knows who, exactly, is behind Puff Bar. Those who claim to represent the company are unwilling to provide clarification about how the company emerged from obscurity.
Puff Bar capitalizes on the factors that made JUUL so appealing – the discreet design and flavors – but operates unbound by the same regulations and public scrutiny that brought JUUL down.
The rise of Puff Bar
Puff Bars look like JUUL’s devices, but they advertise an even more diverse array of flavors than JUUL ever did, including “Blue Razz” and an “OMG” flavor. Its newest product is “Puff Krush,” which is a plastic sleeve that fits on top of the vape and infuses it with extra flavoring that “takes your vape experience to a whole new level,” according to the company’s website.
Puff Bars exist in a “loophole” in the FDA's flavor ban, according to a New York Times story on the popularity of Puff Bar among teens. Nationwide, the interest in the products is clear. Google searches for Puff Bar, Puff Bar near me, and Puff Bar flavors have risen consistently since late 2019.
Phillip Clapp is a toxicologist at the University of North Carolina who has studied e-cigarettes since 2016. Increasing numbers of students in his vaping surveys report using brands like Bidi Sticks and Puff Bar, Clapp says. They are so popular that he went to a vape shop near campus and purchased them himself to test in his lab.
“It was this sudden shift,” Clapp tells Inverse. “Everybody was using JUUL, and now everybody is using something that isn’t a JUUL.”
"Everybody was using JUUL, and now everybody is using something that isn’t a JUUL.”
Puff Bar exists, but it’s not a legal alternative to JUUL's flavored pods, says Cristine Delnevo, the director of the Center for Tobacco Studies at Rutgers University. In January 2020, Delnevo authored a letter in the journal Tobacco Control that describes the rise of disposable e-cigarettes.
After August 8, 2016, the FDA required that all new e-cigarette manufacturers receive premarket approval before they sell their products. Existing manufacturers have a deadline of May 12, 2020 to file their products with the FDA.
“When we saw these products, we went on the FDA site to see which products had been given market authorization. We could not find any of these disposable ‘pod mods’ listed there,” Delnevo tells Inverse.
“Without the marketing authorization, these products are on the market illegally,” she says.
Puff Bar’s shady origins are indicative of a new trend on the fringes of the e-cigarette industry: small companies that pop up, discretely sell their products, and vaporize when they finally fall under the FDA’s gaze, Delnevo says.
“There is this kind of whack-a-mole game where you have these small companies that pop up and they try to maximize their sale for as long as possible,” she says.
“The FDA needs to come after these manufacturers. Whether it’s someone running a business out of their parent’s basement or it’s a bigger company, they need to be held accountable.”
FDA spokesperson Stephanie Caccomo declined to comment on the agency’s efforts to remove Puff Bar products from the market:
“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on compliance strategy or discuss any potential or ongoing compliance matters,” she tells Inverse via email.
A "huge advantage"
Andrew Imecs is a vape reviewer based in Canada who runs the YouTube channel Fumb Duck. In December 2019, he made a Puff Bar video that got over 55,000 views. The look and feel of a Puff Bar is “practically identical” to JUUL, except for the bright colors, Imecs tells Inverse. But they tend to sell for about $10 or less, whereas a JUUL (sans pods) sells for about $15.
But it is the flavors that make them so tantalizing.
“The Puff Bars have a selection of flavors that seem to be irresistible,” Imecs says.
“Flavors like Watermelon, Lychee Ice, Peach Ice, Cucumber, and even Coffee! This is where the Puff Bar has a huge advantage in the market.”
Imecs’ intuition about flavors is backed by epidemiological research — that flavors are appealing, especially to teens.
One 2019 survey published in the journal Public Health Reports found that teens are three times more likely to use a fruit-flavored e-liquid than an adult. They are almost four times more likely to prefer a candy-flavored e-liquid. In a sample of about 3,000 vapers gathered from the 2015-2016 Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health study, another 2019 paper found that adults were 21 times more likely to report using a tobacco-flavored product compared to other flavors.
With both the design of JUUL and limitless flavor options, Puff Bar isn’t only reminiscent of JUUL, it is also on its way to surpassing it in terms of demand, says Brendan Chen, an employee at a vape shop on the East Coast.
During the summer of 2019, Chen started to notice Puff Bar products “blowing up” at vape shops, convenience stores, gas stations, hookah bars, and Kratom bars in his area. It is clear Chen is a dedicated vaper. He's active on vaping subreddits. He won’t sell anything he hasn’t tested himself.
“The demand is astronomically high. I haven’t seen anything like this since JUUL,” Chen tells Inverse. “Even when JUUL was pulling their flavors off the shelves, that demand seems low compared to the demand for Puff Bars right now.”
The demand for JUUL was noteworthy in itself. Between 2016 and 2018, “JUULing” became synonymous with vaping. Some estimates suggest that JUUL held as much as 40 percent of the market for e-cigarettes in 2017. In 2018, the company continued to grow as sales skyrocketed by 783 percent.
But that popularity also made JUUL notorious. The company’s leaders testified before Congress in July 2019; they had to answer for accumulating evidence that they intentionally targeted teens with their marketing and flavorful pods. CEO Kevin Burns stepped down in September 2019, amid the controversy.
Puff Bar's popularity is built on some of the same attributes that JUUL's was. While the FDA has targeted flavors (former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb called them the “core of the epidemic”), Puff Bar expanded the flavor repertoire to include flavors you might find in a bulk candy bar (Banana Ice?). Though Puff Bar isn't running Nickelodeon or Cartoon network ads (as a Massachusetts lawsuit against JUUL alleges), Puff Bar's flavorful products still hold undeniable appeal to teens.
Clapp also suggests that it is the flavors and the pre-packaging that keep people coming back to Puff Bar. While hardcore vapers might mix their own flavors, the younger, experimental users in Clapp’s study aren’t so dedicated to the habit where they might cultivate a DIY vape juice hobby.
“I ask the subjects that come in, ‘If there was a ban where they eliminated these disposable devices, what would you do? Would you mix your own?‘“
“And they’re like, ‘No, we’d just stop,‘” he says.
As tempting as the comparisons between Puff Bar and JUUL are, there are big differences in the products and the organizations that produce them.
If you crack open a JUUL, you will find that the e-juice is housed in a pod. That juice is heated by the JUUL’s rechargeable insides, where it’s then vaporized. Crack open a Puff Bar, as YouTubers, redditors, and Inverse have done, and you will find a piece of cotton that houses the vape liquid. When the cotton runs dry, you are supposed to dispose of the device.
As part of the reporting for this story, Inverse purchased four Puff Bar products from a convenience store in New York City, including the OMG flavor (orange, mango and guava-flavored), Blue Razz, Lychee Ice, and Lush Ice. We cracked open the OMG flavor and found the same thing: a low-powered battery and cotton soaked in a tropical-flavored e-liquid.
That cotton holds the flavored e-juice in lieu of a pod. That allows Puff Bar to avoid the flavor ban, which very specifically targets pod-based systems like JUUL. (But it still doesn’t make them legal.)
The products strike Chen as cheaply made. (Delnevo echoes that sentiment.) The cotton in the middle of the device is an antiquated design that should set off alarm bells, Chen says.
“Most disposables I’ve seen are not built like this. It brought me down this rabbit hole that I knew I could decipher because of what I knew about the industry,” Chen says.
The Puff Bars themselves offer up their secrets to anyone armed with a screwdriver and some needle nose pliers, but the actual company behind the products has proved far harder to crack open.
Chen has come closer than most, and in a post on the r/juul subreddit, he shared the results of his deep dive into the Puff Bar supply chain.
“Puff bars are possibly one of the worst-designed products from 2019 with some of the shadiest owners and production I have ever seen,” he writes.
Reals and fakes
It is not hard to find Puff Bars online. You can buy them on wholesale vape websites, or through at least five different accounts claiming to represent them on Instagram.
The most popular account, @puffbarofficial, has 9,538 followers as of writing and first started posting on May 29, 2019. The user behind that account did not respond to an interview request from Inverse. The second most popular account, @officialpuffbar, has 5,189 followers and provided Inverse with an email address after responding to a DM message. The account started posting on December 22, 2019. The user did not answer questions over email.
There are two major websites that claim to sell Puff Bars: puffbar.com and puffsalt.com. Several sources say that puffsalt.com was the site representing the “real” manufacturer of these products.
A phone call to a number listed on puffbar.com was answered, but the respondent declined to answer questions over the phone. Followup emails were not answered. Puffsalt.com does not list a phone number but has not responded to repeated email requests for interview.
Tracking down the real source of Puff Bar products is a saga. Because of this, people get Puff Bars from different places: vape shops, convenience stores, or eBay. This diverse sourcing means that, even if a product comes with Puff Bar branding, you are never quite sure what you are going to get inside that box.
"I am not sure who or what company manufactures or distributes them."
“Every single subject is telling me that the devices are highly variable. Sometimes they leak, sometimes they last a long time, and other times, the battery is dead within a few hours,” Clapp says.
“There seems to be a lot of variability inherent to this disposable market,” he says.
The variability between Puff Bar products is a constant point of discussion, particularly on Reddit. Some describe flavors that smell like paint; others mention leaking or inconsistent flavors. This inconsistency and lack of guidance from Puff Bar’s leadership have led to a narrative online; there are “real” puff bar products and then there are “fake” puff bar products. The “fakes” take the blame for leaking vapes and errant flavors.
In an effort to distinguish the reals from the “fakes,” consumers have turned to subreddits like r/JUUL, r/electronic_cigarettes, r/vaping, and now the fledgling r/Puffbar (formed in October 2019).
Redditor u/cwc951 is the moderator of the r/Puffbar. They don’t represent Puff Bar, nor do they know who is behind the company, the user tells Inverse. But they do try to open up discussion about the products for people seeking guidance.
“In my opinion, JUUL is a far more reputable brand than Puff Bar because [JUUL] is very clear who owns it and where it comes from,” the redditor says via DM.
“I honestly recommend people come over to the subreddit r/Puffbar because there are many people who use these devices on a daily basis, and most of them are more than happy to discuss the product and answer any questions people may have.”
But even those familiar with the brand are often fooled, including Imecs.
“A lot of third-party sites and distributors sell the product, and I am not sure who or what company manufactures or distributes them. There are a variety of knockoffs for the Puff Bar, as I have received Puff Bars that have different labels on them,” Imecs says.
“I have bought about four Puff Bars in the last month, and it is extremely hard to tell if they are legitimate or not,” he says.
Redditor u/cwc951 explains that Puff Bar’s manufacturer changes the design of the packages “constantly.” The only way to tell if a product is legitimate is to check a security code that comes on every Puff Bar box by plugging it into puffsalt.com’s verification system.
Of the four Puff Bar products that Inverse purchased, three were registered on puffsalt.com. One, a Lychee Ice flavor with a slightly different packaging style, did not appear.
A verification system lends an air of legitimacy. However, it is possible to buy Puff Bar boxes “with security codes” on DHGate.com, a wholesale website — though that’s no guarantee that the codes will check out.
That said, a verification system is easy to create, Chen says.
“I have looked into the website itself, and the serial number system itself is nothing special. It’s what we call a JSON file. It’s pre-generated numbers that they apply to the serial stickers. I was actually able to guess and come up with a few numbers within a few minutes,” he says.
The verification system only proves that the Puff Bars have been registered with someone capable of creating those codes. Right now, there are a number of people on the hunt for that person given Puff Bar’s explosive popularity.
An unexpected spotlight
Puff Bar does have a paper trail. It begins at the US Patent and Trademark office, with a trademark filed in July 2019. The Puff Bar logo is registered to a company called Cool Clouds Distribution.
Richard Hepner, the attorney of record for that trademark listing, tells Inverse that he was hired to assist with trademarking by Puff Bar. He also says he has been busy fielding calls from reporters looking for any trace of Puff Bar’s elusive leadership.
Cool Clouds Distribution is a registered company in California, but that is where the trail ends. A Google Maps view of the address registered with Cool Clouds Distribution, captured in March 2019, reveals an empty storefront in Los Angeles.
Using a phone number provided by Chen, Inverse called Cool Cloud Distribution. The call went unanswered. An attempt to contact a “senior account manager” for Cool Clouds Distribution on LinkedIn also went unanswered.
There is one person who claims to represent Puff Bar in several Reddit posts. On Reddit, the user goes by u/vaper786.
In a January 2020 post titled “ATTENTION: There is one Puff Bar and many fakes," the user claimed to operate puffsalt.com. They also claimed that Puff Bar products are undergoing testing at a “US compliant lab in China" and Avomeen, a Michigan-based lab that tests nicotine products. (Avomeen did not respond to Inverse’s attempts to verify that they test Puff Bar’s products. We will update this story if we hear back.)
Redditor u/vaper786 is an adamant defender of Puff Bar on Reddit and the most reachable representative. The user tells Inverse via Reddit DM that they are not the founder or owner, but rather a friend.
On Reddit, the user’s posts suggest they “have the exclusive Puff Bar” and are pursuing premarket approval with the FDA. But in later posts, the user also claims they are “laying low” because they emerged post-2016, the year the FDA froze the market for e-cigarettes.
Redditor u/vaper786 declined to answer questions regarding when the company was founded, whether they intend to file for premarket approval with the FDA, or indicate who they actually are.
Rather, u/vaper786 paints a picture of a small company that quickly and unexpectedly spiraled out of control. Popularity of the products, press inquiries, and sales brought an additional level of scrutiny on the company that the user maintains they were never prepared for, nor intended. They maintain that most products out there are fake, and that the company is not as big as it appears.
But Puff Bar’s popularity and appeal is “irresistible,” to use Imecs' words. And that irresistibility may be just the thing that pushes the company into the spotlight.
"We own the factories."
Puff Bar’s boxes spell out where the products are actually made, even if we don’t know who the leadership is. The boxes clearly read “Designed in the U.S.A., Made in China.”
In itself, Chinese manufacturing is not a stain on Puff Bar’s products. In fact, the Chinese manufacturers are about the only public-facing part of the company’s operation. Some manufacturers also maintain presences on Instagram. On sites like Alibaba, a quick search reveals a minimum order of 50 Puff Bars works out to a unit price of less than $2 per e-cigarette, which can be shipped from factories in Shenzhen to the US.
As for the variation in products that have led to the “real” versus “fake”’ debate, Chen speculates there might simply be different factories contracted by Puff Bar’s leadership to meet the “ridiculous” demand of the product.
“That leads to the issue of inconsistencies within each variant product from each facility,” Chen says.
In that sense, he believes that there is no “real” or “fake” Puff Bar products. While one person owns the trademark, there appears to be no single facility where these products are consistently overseen, but rather, a number of different facilities.
Redditor u/vaper786 disputes this, stating that “we own the factories” and [are] the only authentic product." The user maintains that the authentic Puff Bar products (meaning they’re sold by the groups that own the trademark) were tested for safety. But now, the fakes greatly outnumber the real ones, the user says.
Taken together, the intricacies of Puff Bar’s supply chain do not matter that much. Rather, they point toward a model that other small, disposable e-cigarette companies might follow, Delnevo says.
You create a company, secure your trademark, contract out your supply, and begin to rake in the cash.
“At the end, presumably, the FDA comes in and says these need to go,” she says. “And the company is like, ‘oops, my bad,’ but in the meantime, they’ve done all these sales.”
Clapp agrees that Puff Bar is demonstrative of a new problem in the regulatory world of e-cigarettes.
“At least with JUUL, there was a company and a headquarters, and they’d been around long enough to have a name and CEO,” he says.
“These companies are surging to the forefront and, really, none of us know anything about them.”
A rare moment of unity
Scientists who study vaping and members of the vape industry don’t often agree. But when it comes to Puff Bar, Delnevo and Anton share common ground. They would both like the FDA to remove these products as quickly as possible.
Chen agrees. He says that Puff Bar products put legal vape manufacturers — which intend to file for approval by the FDA’s May 12, 2020 deadline — at a disadvantage. They have to bear the costs associated with ensuring that a product is safe. They have to steer clear of flavors unless they are in tank-based systems.
“It does make it hard to compete because these people will flood the market. We don’t produce anything like this ourselves,” Chen says.
Mark Anton has no plans to speak out against Puff Bar. But his organization’s stance is that it is the FDA’s responsibility to remove these products provided they weren’t on the market before August 8, 2016.
“If the product was not on the market, they have a responsibility to make sure that product is taken off the market,” he says.
But FDA intervention may not be necessary. Puff Bar’s astronomical rise has also spelled their demise — at least according to u/vaper_786. After several days of correspondence, the user provided Inverse with the following statement:
"Unfortunately I am unable to speak any more. The company has closed up shop and does not want any media coverage."
A few hours later, the u/vaper786 responded to a post on Reddit claiming they would “provide lab reports next week” regarding what ingredients are used in Puff Bar products. As of publishing, those lab reports have not been released on the thread.
If the saga of Puff Bar’s shadowy ownership and meteoric rise say anything, it is that legally nebulous vape manufacturers are nothing if not nimble. Puff Bar may be disappearing — but then again, they may not be.
Even if Puff Bar vanishes, it may not be long before something else takes their place.