And just like that, the reputation of disposable vape brand ElfBar has gone up in smoke.

This week its products were found to contain way above the legal limit of nicotine liquid, something it blamed on a production error where oversized tanks (used in devices sold in other countries) somehow found their way into UK-bound product. Devastatingly for the Chinese-owned brand, those illegal devices reached UK supermarket shelves.

It hasn’t taken long for it to fall foul of the mults. ElfBars only went into Sainsbury’s and Morrisons last summer, going on to hit Tesco in October, quickly followed by Asda.

Changing statements from the supermarkets indicate ElfBar is struggling to get on top of the issue. First the retailers stated they were removing specific products – ones called out in a Daily Mail investigation on the oversized tanks. But they’ve since announced the entire ElfBar range will be stripped from the shelves, regardless of flavour variant or device type.

So will Elf ever return to the shelf?

The supermarkets will take some convincing. They were already taking something of a gamble stocking them in the first place, given the deteriorating public perception of disposable vapes.

The devices are seen as targeting children, a source of litter and environmentally unsound. This was all too much for Waitrose, which last month announced a complete withdrawal from the disposable category, saying “selling single-use vapes is not something we could justify given the impact on both the environment and the health of young people”.

But for rival retailers, the sheer weight of demand for these products – booming in online specialist retailers and convenience stores – has been enough to make the risk worthwhlie.

From January 2021 to April 2022, there was an 18-fold increase in the percentage of vapers who used disposables – from 1.2% to 22.2% – according to a major academic study.

ElfBar’s network of factories across China enables it to meet retailer requests for a steady supply of the devices. This helped the company, which was only founded in 2018, sell an extra 55.8 million units in 2022 and increase value sales by £322.1m.

It was 2022’s fastest-growing brand in grocery – but to avoid being this year’s fastest-falling, it will have some serous work to do.

Crucially, supermarkets will be wanting quality assurance guarantees that ElfBar might not be able to provide. Industry insiders say its sheer scale of production means batch numbers of affected products may never be forthcoming. Plus, its product mould is widely available, creating a substantial counterfeiting risk.

The company is already dealing with a major problem on this front. Last year, it worked with Chinese authorities to close down more than 20 counterfeit factories, which were found to have collectively produced over a million fake devices – “the majority of which would have likely ended up with UK retailers and in the hands of British consumers”, the company said.

Of this week’s snafu, ElfBar said: “Whilst a highly regrettable situation, we should stress that this is an e-liquid volume issue and is not related in any way to product quality. Therefore, it does not compromise the safety of the product.”

But one online vape retailer told The Grocer they believed it was sheer luck the production error related to tank size rather than the nicotine strength of the product, which could have resulted in swathes of sick consumers.

ElfBar’s alert process has also been exposed. It says the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) alerted it to the issue. But many of its UK wholesalers have yet to receive any guidance from the company on the illegal product or any information to pass on to retailers.

The major mults will now be aware, if they weren’t already, of just how lax the approval process for getting e-cigarettes on to UK shelves can be. To supply e-cig products in the UK, producers must ‘notify’ their products and submit data to the MHRA. Once assessed as compliant, the MHRA publishes the product information so it can be legally supplied and sold.

But products are not individually assessed against the submissions by the MHRA. The process relies on self-policing and surveillance by already overstretched local Trading Standards teams.

With the category already on thin ice, this incident could be the catalyst for more retailers following Waitrose’s lead and ditching disposables completely. And that’s if consumers and councils don’t come to that conclusion first.

After campaigners found dozens of disposables littering the streets in just one hour, Dundee could become the first UK city to ban their sale under a proposed plan by a local MSP. An urgent review on their environmental impact is already underway by the Scottish government, which warns its policy response “could include a ban of the products”. Similarly, the Irish government is considering a blanket block on disposable vapes on environmental grounds.

Gillian Golden, CEO of the Independent British Vape Trade Association, told The Grocer: “While the single-use product category has undergone an incredible resurgence, it has demonstrated a level of unprecedented consumer appeal. The vape sector should have every confidence that this isolated incident will not deter that appeal.”

But even if consumer appetite remains, this incident might just deter retailers for good.