10 August 2023

Puff bars: New project will take the steam out of illegal online selling


With funding from TrygFonden, sociologists will map the illegal sale of disposable e-cigarettes, the so-called puff bars, and develop new interventions targeting the illicit online market. The use of puff bars has grown rapidly, especially among young people.

E-cigarette. Photo: Colourbox
Photo: Colourbox

Disposable, single-use e-cigarettes, also known as puff bars, are banned in Denmark, but can easily be purchased online, in kiosks or from friends with the right contacts. Simultaneously, the use of puff bars, which are typically sold with fruit flavours and very high nicotine content, has spread rapidly among children and young people.

A new project at the Department of Sociology will now gather more knowledge about who buys and sells the illegal products online. Moreover, the mapping should lead to the development of specific interventions against illegal sales. The research will be conducted in close dialogue with health authorities, the police and other actors working in the field.

For Associate Professor Jakob Demant, who is responsible for the new project in collaboration with postdoc Alessandro Moretti and research assistant Kristoffer Aagesen, the project’s practical dimension is important.

"To be able to prevent children and young people from buying puff bars online, we need to understand the specific social reality in which the trade happens. Furthermore, because it takes place online, it can be harder to distinguish the legal from the illegal. Therefore, young people may start selling puff bars online themselves seeing themselves as entrepreneurs or ‘first movers’ without realising the consequences such a step can have,” he says. 

Focus on online trading

The project comes in the wake of a joint 'control task force' set up last year by the Minister of Health and the Minister for Industry, Business and Financial Affairs (LINK) to strengthen the authorities' control of the sale of puff bars. 

The new research project at the University of Copenhagen complements these efforts by focusing on online markets and the buying and selling of illicit goods, which typically takes place via social media. Here, the trade is not only widespread, but also poses a particular risk because the sale of puff bars is often linked to the sale of illegal drugs such as cocaine, cannabis and synthetic opioids.

"It's not just about learning more about a grey market for nicotine products. It's also about the fact that these products are advertised alongside even more high-risk illegal activities – like the selling of cocaine or credit card fraud. By preventing young people from buying online, we can also prevent them from slipping into buying and selling other illegal goods and services," says Demant. 

Both researchers behind the project have extensive experience in investigating criminal online activities. In the new project, they will follow digital buyer and seller traces, e.g. via open adverts on Instagram or in closed and semi-closed groups on Facebook and Snapchat. The mapping will be supplemented with interviews among buyers and sellers.

Concrete solutions

Ultimately, the aim is to map sales methods and to identify different buyer and seller profiles across social platforms that will lead to a better understanding of the barriers interventions against the online trading may encounter.

As a second step, the researchers will develop proposals for concrete initiatives in dialogue with users of puff bars and several actors and organisations (see box) working in the field. This will be done through focus groups and workshops.

The types of interventions that the project ends up proposing will depend entirely on the study, but according to Jakob Demant, the ambition is to develop concrete, workable solutions to supplement the initiatives that the health authorities are implementing.


Jakob Demant
Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology
Email: jd@soc.ku.dk 
Phone: 35 32 15 84
Mobile: 81 74 20 74

Søren Bang
Email: sba@samf.ku.dk 
Mobile: 29 21 09 73


More stories