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WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.

TikTokers Quit Vaping Due to Humanitarian Crisis in Congo

TikTok has become an unlikely source of social activism for humanitarian concerns around the manufacture of e-cigarettes. The viral movement encourages TikTok users across the globe to quit vaping in solidarity with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The Congo has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and the seventh-largest reserves of copper. Both materials are essential components of lithium-ion batteries, which are the battery of choice for e-cigarette manufacturers. 

In September of this year, Amnesty International published a report titled DR: Powering Change or Business as Usual?1Amnesty International, ‘DRC: Cobalt and Copper Mining for Batteries Leading to Human Rights Abuses,’ Amnesty International, Sep. 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/09/drc-cobalt-and-copper-mining-for-batteries-leading-to-human-rights-abuses/ According to the report, the expansion of these industrial-scale mines has caused entire communities in the Congo to be evicted. People in the DRC also face human rights violations that include sexual assault, arson, and beatings. 

Siddharth Kara, a fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently spoke out about the devastating impact of cobalt mining in the DRC. “Cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe,”2T. Gross, “How ‘modern-day slavery’ in the Congo powers the rechargeable battery economy,” NPR, Feb. 01, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2023/02/01/1152893248/red-cobalt-congo-drc-mining-siddharth-karahe said. “There are hundreds of thousands of poor Congolese people touching and breathing it day in and day out. Young mothers with babies strapped to their backs, all breathing in this toxic cobalt dust.” 

Just last month, the 2023 National Youth Tobacco survey found that Elf Bar is the most popular e-cigarette brand among young people3U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ‘Results from the Annual National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS),’ U.S. Food and Drug Administration, [Online]. Available: https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/youth-and-tobacco/results-annual-national-youth-tobacco-survey, with 56.7% of respondents choosing it over any other brand. Elf Bar devices have built-in lithium-ion batteries. Once the e-liquid inside the device is finished, vapers simply throw the device away. 

This is not the first time that lithium-ion batteries have come under fire. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor added lithium-ion batteries to a list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor.4U.S. Department of Labor, ‘2022 TVPRA List of Goods,’ U.S. Department of Labor, [Online]. Available: https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2021/2022-TVPRA-List-of-Goods-v3.pdf Vape manufacturers use these types of batteries because they have high energy density, meaning they hold charge for longer.

44.7% of TikTok users5S. Lebow, “Gen Z leads the pack on Snapchat, TikTok,” Insider Intelligence, Dec. 14, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.insiderintelligence.com/content/gen-z-leads-pack-on-snapchat-tiktok are from Gen Z, which is known for being both the digital generation and, as Forbes put it, the “The Sustainability Generation”6G. Petro, “Gen Z Is Emerging As The Sustainability Generation,” Forbes, Apr. 30, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/gregpetro/2021/04/30/gen-z-is-emerging-as-the-sustainability-generation/. According to one report, 62% of Gen Z shoppers prefer buying from sustainable brands7First Insight, “The State of Consumer Spending: Gen Z Shoppers Demand Sustainable Retail,” First Insight, [Online]. Available: https://www.firstinsight.com/white-papers-posts/gen-z-shoppers-demand-sustainability, and 73% are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Given that Gen Z dominates TikTok, it is no surprise that it has become a viable platform to establish grassroots movements. 

Speaking to the BBC, former UN Security Council expert on the Democratic Republic of Congo Christopher Vogel spoke out against such activism, which he believes is a “double-edged sword.”8W. Chibelushi, “Congo cobalt: TikTokers quit vaping over mining concerns,” BBC News, [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-67569996 He said that drawing attention to cobalt and copper mining on digital platforms can lead to “mass simplification” of the issue. 

“There are widespread human rights violations, including child labor, in the context of cobalt mining,” Vogel said. “But this is common to mining in general, and it would be misleading to assign that to cobalt, per se.” 

The widespread, instantaneous nature of platforms like TikTok could, as Vogel puts it, simplify the issue of cobalt mining in the Congo. On top of that, it could also unfairly place the blame for humanitarian abuses on e-cigarettes. Misinformation around e-cigarettes is something we have seen time and time again, most recently when we reported on the retracted study linking vaping to disease

Nonetheless, the vape industry should do more to protect people, families, and communities at every level of the e-cigarette supply chain. TikTok activism has the power to inform new audiences about this ongoing problem.


Viki Howlett
Viki Howlett
Viki Howlett, a skilled writer with a decade of vaping experience, enriches our website with engaging, well-researched articles, offering readers valuable insights and trustworthy reviews on vaping products and trends.
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