Dear Matmailen in Cloven-landen: My friend Marky-Mark and I have heard a lot of scary statements in regard to the ingredients and health risks of clove cigarettes. Our preferred brand: Djarum Specials, long lasting, smooth, and aromatic. Smokers and nonsmokers alike say things like, “Oh boy, they’ll burn holes in your lungs”; or “Man, those things are filled with pesticides”; or “One is worse than 20 regular cigarettes.” Nobody is yet able to tell me where precisely they got their information. They say they heard it sometime, somewhere; they were told in school; they once read it in some magazine; blah, blah, blah.... Smokin’ Matthew, please dig deep into your fuming box of knowledge and let us finally and definitively know what’s in those aromatically enhanced, smokable incense sticks. Do they contain any tobacco at all, or are they only the leaves of the clove bush/tree/plant? What substance in clove cigarettes, if not nicotine, is playing with and addicting the smoker’s mind and body? — Martin Seidl, La Jolla
We doused the fuming box of knowledge, let it cool off, and pulled out some charred stuff that appears to be facts: Call ’em kreteks, call ’em chicartas, or “cloves,” or (my personal opinion) reeking stench-sticks, all clove cigs are two-thirds to three-quarters tobacco. The remaining fraction is a minced form of the little pointy things your mom sticks all over the Christmas ham. (Note that at Christmas, you’re smart enough to throw the cloves away, not light ’em and suck on ’em....) According to the medical science guys, one unfiltered clove cig delivers 34 to 65 mg tar, 1.9 to 2.6 mg nicotine, 18 to 28 mg carbon dioxide. This is about three times what you get from one filtered Marlboro, which, toxin-wise, makes your Djarum Specials the choice of smart shoppers. The cloves themselves contribute to the hefty tar content, but mostly those ugly numbers come from the tobacco.
Eugenol is the chemical that gives cloves their characteristic taste and smell. It’s a topical anesthetic in its liquid form, but not much is known about what happens when you burn it, then toke it. There have been cases of lung damage, pneumonia, and some other bad respiratory stuff associated with clove cigarettes. Researchers believe the anesthetic properties of eugenol interfere with throat muscle function, and clove smokers might aspirate more throat crud into their lungs. But it’s all a little hazy. The biggest risk doctors see (aside from emphysema, death, and other tobacco pitfalls) is that clove cigarettes anesthetize your mouth and throat and make smoking “easier” for beginners, who later move on to regular cigarettes. Think of them as Camels with training wheels.