It’s no secret to smokers that nicotine is unhealthy. Despite the decline in smoking over the last several decades, nearly 46 million Americans continue to smoke cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And some of them are turning to herbal cigarettes as a way to indulge their habit while hoping to reduce the damage to their health.
Herbal cigarettes are sometimes touted as a safe, non-addictive alternative to tobacco smoking. After all, herbal cigarettes contain no tobacco and therefore no nicotine, the drug in cigarettes that causes people to become addicted. Many people even smoke herbal cigarettes as an aid to stop smoking regular cigarettes.
The Dangers of Smoking Herbal Cigarettes
In fact, herbal cigarettes are as harmful as tobacco cigarettes, because any vegetable matter that’s burned produces tar, carbon monoxide, and other toxins. When you breathe in the smoke of an herbal cigarette, you’re breathing those harmful toxins directly into your lungs. Herbal cigarettes are required by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to carry warning labels saying that they’re harmful to your health.
Herbal cigarettes look like normal cigarettes, but contain a blend of herbs instead of tobacco. Some of the herbs contained in these cigarettes include:
Red clover flowers
Other types of cigarettes that some consider “natural” are called bidis and clove cigarettes, or kreteks; these do contain tobacco.
The Dangers of Clove Cigarettes and Bidis
Clove cigarettes, also known as kreteks, contain a blend of tobacco and cloves, usually 60 to 70 percent tobacco and 30 to 40 percent cloves. Kreteks also contain clove oil and other additives. Research has found that these alternative cigarettes are actually worse that regular tobacco products, delivering more nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar to smokers.
Bidis are flavored, unfiltered cigarettes that have recently increased in popularity among teenagers and young adults in the United States. They’re thinner than regular tobacco cigarettes, and come hand-rolled and tied with colorful strings on each end. They come in flavors that include chocolate and fruits such as cherry, orange, and strawberry, and they tend to be cheaper than traditional cigarettes. While bidis contain less tobacco than normal cigarettes, they have been shown to deliver more nicotine.
Regulating Tobacco and Herbal Cigarettes
Not only are these alternative cigarettes not safe, some experts are concerned that herbal cigarettes, kreteks, and bidis may be a gateway to eventual tobacco smoking and addiction.
For years, tobacco cigarettes received little regulation or oversight. Only in June 2009 did the U.S. government take steps to grant the Food and Drug Administration the authority to:
Set levels for nicotine and other cigarette ingredients
Require cigarette makers to list the contents of their products
Govern cigarette advertising
Not surprisingly, herbal cigarettes have gotten even less oversight. Regulation has been largely left up to the states; New York is one example of a state where sales of herbal cigarettes are restricted to adults. However, the FTC did step in to place one important restriction on herbal cigarettes: In 2000, the FTC ruled against an herbal cigarette manufacturer called Alternative Cigarettes Inc., saying the company falsely advertised that its products did not pose the same health risks as tobacco cigarettes. Herbal cigarette packs now carry a health warning saying that they are unhealthy because they produce carbon monoxide and tar.
Bottom line: Don’t light up. It’s bad for your health, even when the product claims to be herbal or natural.