What Are Clove Cigarettes?

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Clove Cigarette health risks
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

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

What Are Clove Cigarettes?

Produced in Indonesia and distributed worldwide, clove cigarettes are typically made up of approximately 60 to 80% tobacco and 20 to 40% ground clove buds and clove oil. Usually machine-rolled, clove cigarettes come with or without filters.

Cloves are the dried, unopened flower buds from a clove tree, which is known as Syzygium aromaticum. It is native to Indonesia, specifically the Maluku Islands. You may recognize cloves as a spice used in cooking. Sometimes additional spices like cumin, cinnamon, and nutmeg are also added to the cigarette.

Health Risks

While some people may believe clove cigarettes are not as bad for you as regular cigarettes, kreteks have a number of health risks.

Nicotine, Carbon Monoxide, and Tar Exposure

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), clove cigarettes contain more nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar than regular cigarettes sold in the United States.

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.

Exposure to Eugenol

Clove cigarettes also contain eugenol, a mild anesthetic that naturally occurs in cloves. This numbing feature allows a 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.)

These longer and deeper inhales can increase the risk of lung infections, respiratory illness, and allergic reactions in some smokers. It's especially risky for those with existing lung sensitivities.

Increased Risk of Health Problems

According to the American Cancer Society, clove cigarettes carry the same health risks as cigarettes. Kreteks specifically have also been associated with an increased risk for acute lung injury, which includes:

  • Inflammation
  • Fluid in lungs
  • Lower oxygen levels

Clove cigarettes can also cause lung cancer and nicotine addiction, according to the National Cancer Institute.

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

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

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 the colorful packaging, this type of cigarette is aimed directly at young smokers and is considered a gateway product.

Note: Because the sale of flavored cigarettes has been banned since 2009 in the United States, current data from the CDC on the prevalence of clove cigarette use among youth is lacking.

Clove cigarettes became 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 clove cigarettes were more harmful than originally imagined.

From 1984 to 1985, the CDC confirmed 12 cases of severe illness that may have been associated with clove cigarettes with symptoms including pulmonary edema, coughing up blood, and bronchospasm.

Legal Status in the U.S.

In 2009, the FDA took action by prohibiting cigarettes with any flavor other than tobacco or menthol, which included cigarettes made with clove or clove oil.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 was implemented to deter kids from trying 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.

In 2020, the FDA specifically cracked down on companies that make and sell fruit and mint-flavored e-cigarettes, which were more appealing to young adults than traditional tobacco or mint varieties. While the FDA also raised the age for buying tobacco products to 21, parents should know that e-cigarette and other tobacco products may still be available online.

As of Dec. 20, 2019, the legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

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. 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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Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bidis and kreteks. Updated January 17, 2018.