A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are clove cigarettes 10 times worse than the regular kind?

October 29, 1993

Dear Cecil:

I have heard many times that smoking commercially available filtered clove cigarettes is "ten times worse for your lungs than normal cigarettes." I suspect this is just an urban legend, but if it is true maybe I should quit smoking cloves. Are cloves worse than other cigarettes?

Cecil replies:

The "ten times worse" figure is probably an exaggeration, but this is no urban legend. At least two teenagers died after smoking clove cigarettes during the clove craze of the mid-1980s. Five others were hospitalized and and 250 others reported breathing difficulties, including coughing up blood.

Called "kreteks," clove cigarettes are imported from Indonesia and were first brought to California by Australian surfers. Typically they're a 40-60 mix of shredded clove buds and tobacco. Sales rose from 15 million in 1980 to 150 million in 1984 but plummeted thereafter following reports about health problems, including a warning from the American Lung Association. Clove cigarette importers claimed that the media were whipping up anti-kretek hysteria, pointing out that 80 billion had been sold worldwide in 1984 and that Indonesians had been smoking them for a century without massive loss of life (due to smoking kreteks, anyway).

But we're not talking candy cigarettes here. Kreteks produce more tar, nicotine, and carbon monoxide than ordinary cigarettes. The active ingredient in clove cigarettes is something called eugenol, on which little research has been done. But there is reason to believe it promotes lung infections or allergic reactions in vulnerable individuals. One of the two clove fatalities involved somebody with a cold; the other victim had a history of severe allergies. Part of the original appeal of clove cigarettes was that they were healthier than the all-tobacco variety; that's clearly not the case.

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