What do maize silk, banana skins and weeds have in common? People who are desperate for a smoke have all used them in improvised cigarettes.

If something can be rolled up and smoked, you can bet someone, somewhere, rolled it up and smoked. Most of these experiments do not go very far, but a few non-tobacco substances have succeeded in attacking. In fact, “alternative” cigarettes have become a thriving business. Some contain mixtures of herbs; some combine tobacco with cloves, dried tendu leaves (a plant of India and Southeast Asia) and other unusual ingredients.

Alternative cigarettes – sold at many convenience stores and over the internet – are easy to find and easy to buy, even for children who are not old enough to buy tobacco. They often look exotic and come in attractive flavors such as cherry or vanilla. But their biggest selling point is that they are supposed to be a healthy alternative to “real” cigarettes. As one natural tobacco and cloves cigarette retailer put it, “Do you have to smoke? Smoke smart!”

But despite this marketing ploy, alternative cigarettes are NOT safe. In fact, some are significantly more dangerous than regular cigarettes. As the director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Affairs once said, “There is no such thing as safe smoking.”

“Simply being free of additives – or in the case of herbal cigarettes, free of nicotine – does not make them safer,” said Matthew Gold, a staff lawyer for the FTC. “Any kind of cigarette you smoke has tar and carbon monoxide, which poses a lot of real health hazards with it.” Gold has a lawsuit against Alternative Cigarettes, Inc. won which forced the company to display health warnings on its products.

Some of the most popular types of alternative cigarettes are bidi, herbal and cloves cigarettes, all of which are especially popular with young people. Here’s a close look at their risks:


Commonly imported from India and Southeast Asia, bidis are small, hand-rolled cigarettes made with dark tobacco tightly wrapped in a dried tendon leaf. They look somewhat like marijuana joints and are available in just about every conceivable artificial flavor, including carrot beer, mango, chocolate and cherry. Bidis are usually much cheaper than regular cigarettes; a bundle of 20 might cost just $ 2.00. Why so cheap? According to the U.S. Customs Service, some manufacturers rely on child slave laborers to roll the cigarettes.

Exotic looks, delicious flavors, low cost – it’s not hard to guess who bidis is really trying to attract. “We call it training wheels for young smokers,” says John Banzhaf, founder and former executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).

Unfortunately, these tasty “herbal” cigarettes are more dangerous than tobacco cigarettes. For one thing, smokers inhale about 2 to 3 times more tar and nicotine than they would if they smoked regular cigarettes, according to a Public Health issue. And since tendubil leaves do not burn as easily as paper, bidi smokers need to inhale deeply and often just to keep the stuff lit. As a result, toxins and carcinogenic compounds found in the smoke can end up deep in their lungs.

Jennifer Williams, the American Lung Association’s former director of tobacco control for the central coast of California, says high school students are often shocked to learn how bidis are made. “When we go to schools and talk, we let the children know that many prayers are produced with illegal child labor,” says Williams. “In fact, children of their own age are often contracted servants, and spend all day rolling out hundreds of these cigarettes for little or no money. It has a huge impact on the children. They are upset that children are being abused for it. to produce. product. “

Four leading bidi cigarette brands were banned by the US in 2014, joining many other bidi manufacturers who had to remove their products due to an earlier ban on flavored cigarettes. However, some are still sold online and over the phone. In one state-run stabbing operation, children as young as 9 successfully bought bidis over the phone with a toll-free number provided by a website.

Herbal Cigarettes

Herbal cigarettes are tobacco-free and nicotine-free, but they are far from risk-free. “A lot of people assume that anything is herbal or of course not dangerous, and that’s not true,” Banzhaf says.

Herbal Gold cigarettes are an excellent example. They look exactly like regular cigarettes and come in different flavors including menthol, cherry and vanilla. Because they do not contain tobacco, they can be legally sold to smokers of any age. Herbal Gold cigarettes contain a mixture of herbs, including marshmallow (the plant, not the hot chocolate topping), passion flower, jasmine and ginseng. These herbs are staple foods from health food stores, and they are generally safe – until set on fire.

According to a report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Herbal Gold and other herbal cigarettes produce many of the same toxins found in tobacco smoke, including tar and carbon monoxide. In April 2000, the commission ordered the manufacturers of Herbal Gold (as well as another herbal cigarette manufacturer) to add the following warning to all packs: “Herbal cigarettes are dangerous to your health. They produce tar and carbon monoxide.” Another FTC lawsuit against Alternative Cigarettes and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company – the manufacturers of “Natural American Spirit” cigarettes – ended with the manufacturers agreeing to discontinue advertising that their cigarettes are safer because they contain no additives .

Herbal cigarettes (crete text)

Also known as crete text, these cigarettes contain about 60 percent tobacco and 40 percent ground cloves. (Some baby boomers may remember buying it in exotic packages with a picture of a volcano on the front.) Cretex is far from healthier to smoke, but produces twice as much nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide as regular cigarettes, according to the American Lung Association.

In addition, switching tobacco for cloves is not necessarily a good deal. Cloves can be perfectly fine in a cup of cider or a Christmas ham, but they produce dangerous chemicals when they burn, Banzhaf says. Inhaled clove oil can also increase the risk of pneumonia, bronchitis and other lung infections. In some susceptible individuals, navel cigarettes have even caused coma and life-threatening lung injury, including pulmonary edema, a condition in which the lungs fill with fluid.

Crete text was banned in the US under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, and the CDC no longer collects data on its use. However, they are still available by mail order, something supporters of smoking worry about.


John Banzhaf, interview

FDA commits itself to evidence-based actions aimed at saving lives and preventing future generations of smokers, 2021. https: //www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcement …

Bidis and Cretex. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https: //www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_s …

Is any type of tobacco product safe? American Cancer Society. https: //www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/tobacc …

Federal Trade Commission. FTC accepts settlements of charges that “Alternative” cigarette ads are fraudulent. https: //www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/200 …

Ask an expert: e-cigarettes and other alternative smoking. Providence Health and Services. Oregon and Southwest Washington. https: //oregon.providence.org/forms-and-informatio …

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 110th Congress. Davis and Waxman reintroduce legislation to regulate tobacco products. March 17, 2005. https: //www.everycrsreport.com/files/20070430_RL32 …

Committee on Energy and Trade, U.S. House of Representatives. Energy and Trade Committee approves Landmark Tobacco Act. 2 April 2008. http: //energycommerce.house.gov/Press_110/110nr266 …