Facts About Clove Cigarettes

Once-popular smoking alternative poses serious risks

Clove cigarettes, also known as kreteks, are often mistakenly thought of as a safe smoking alternative to regular cigarettes, presumed to be more natural and lacking in toxic chemicals. But they are just as problematic as traditional cigarettes.

Produced in Indonesia and distributed worldwide, clove cigarettes are typically made of up of approximately 60 percent to 80 percent tobacco, and 20 percent to 40 percent ground clove buds and clove oil. Sometimes additional spices like cumin, cinnamon, and nutmeg are also added.

Usually machine-rolled, clove cigarettes come with or without filters. While kreteks do not contain the thousands of toxic chemicals that traditional cigarettes do, they are far from healthy.

Clove Cigarette health risks
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Health Risks

Studies have shown that clove cigarettes deliver more nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar than regular cigarettes and that it takes more time and puffs on average to fully smoke a clove cigarette, leading smokers to face up to 20 times the risk of acute lung damage than nonsmokers. Clove cigarette smokers who suffer from asthma or a respiratory infection are especially at risk.

Clove cigarettes pose the same risk of nicotine addiction that conventional cigarettes do, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

These cigarettes also contain eugenol, a mild anesthetic that naturally occurs in cloves. It is thought that the numbing feature of cloves caused by eugenol allows the kretek smoker to inhale longer and more deeply. (Because of this effect, eugenol is sometimes added to traditional cigarettes to numb the throat against the harshness of tobacco smoke.)

This can increase the risk of lung infections, respiratory illness, and allergic reactions in some smokers, especially those with existing lung sensitivities.

Clove cigarette smokers also increase their risk of heart disease and certain cancers, such as cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, and liver.

Aside from this, in large doses, cloves or clove oil can cause a variety of potentially dangerous problems, including:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sleepiness
  • Mouth or throat burns
  • Lung injury
  • Bronchospasm

The CDC has confirmed 12 cases of non-specific respiratory illness (including pulmonary edema, capillaries leakage, and decreased blood oxygen) linked to the use of clove cigarettes.

Gateway to Tobacco Use

Like bidi cigarettes, it's not uncommon for clove cigarettes to be a young person's first introduction to tobacco. Between the spiced flavor of cloves and colorful packaging, this type of cigarette is aimed directly at young smokers and is considered a "gateway" product.

Clove cigarettes became rather popular in the United States among young people in the early 1980s, particularly in California high schools and universities. The trend peaked in 1984 when imports into the United States, mainly from Indonesia, totaled 150 million cigarettes per year.

The trend began to reverse in 1985 as evidence suggested that cloves cigarettes were more harmful than originally imagined. In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took action by prohibiting cigarettes with any flavor other than tobacco or menthol, which implicitly included cigarettes made with clove or clove oil.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 was implemented to deter kids from getting started with tobacco. Sweet flavors added to cigarettes soften the harsh taste of tobacco smoke, easing new smokers into what often becomes a lifelong struggle with nicotine addiction.

While the sale of flavored cigarettes is officially banned in the United States, parents should be aware that they can still be purchased online.

A Word From Verywell

Clove cigarettes are not a safe smoking alternative. Any product that must be lit, burned, and inhaled is hazardous to delicate lung tissue and other organs in our bodies, and one that contains tobacco is even more hazardous.

There is no such thing as a safe cigarette. If you are already smoking clove cigarettes—or any other type of cigarette—there are steps you can take to quit the habit and live a healthier life.

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