At some point in junior high, if not eighth grade or near that, a student is going to hear the word “clove” or “djarum.” That will of course trigger the question of what is a clove cigarette and the same for a djarum. Most kids will understand pretty quick that a cigarette is something they shouldn’t have, and that it’s often associated with non-acceptable behavior. Unfortunately, the very nature of how djarum clove cigarettes are made turns things upside down.
Cloves cigarettes, generally originating from Indonesia, are particularly dangerous because they taste extremely sweet when smoked. That immediately changes the dynamic of smoking them, especially for anyone trying flavored cigarettes of any kind for the first time. Also known as kreteks, clove cigarettes are a blend of clove spice and tobacco. Where the average cigarette is 90 something percent tobacco plus chemicals, a clove only has 60 percent tobacco and the rest is the spice. Unfortunately, because of the taste factor, cloves end up being far more addictive faster versus cigarettes. One of the saving graces of a regular cigarette is that it takes some getting used to first. Most children don’t like the smell or taste of regular tobacco at first.
Cloves are also often confused with Bidis. A Bidi is a similar type of cigarette from India. It too is rolled thin, and the Bidi contains up to five times as much nicotine as a regular American cigarette. Bidis are particularly notorious for causing heart attacks in long-time users, as well as all types of respiratory cancer and emphysema, according to federal health experts.
Cloves or black cigarettes also pack a harder punch when it comes to physical effects on the body. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, cloves pack in far more tar, carbon monoxide and nicotine than the strongest of regular cigarettes. So they have a very fast-acting debilitating effect on teens who are still developing physically. This reaction is in addition to the normal risks that any kind of smoking poses on the body, which includes:
- heart disease
- brain circulation problems and aneurysms
- risk of miscarriage during pregnancy
- decreased ability to be fertile
- erectile problems
- birth defects
While the above should be enough to dissuade most logical people from smoking a cigarette at all, they still do. And cloves make that process far easier.
An Unfamiliar Ingredient
In addition to all the problems regular smoking brings, clove smoking heightens the potential health hazards involved with the ingredient eugenol. This is an ingredient that is normally used as an anesthetic, which is why a clove smoker’s lips will feel a bit numb after smoking one. No one really has a good idea what eugenol does inside the body since no objective studies have been performed on the chemical outside of dentistry use as a topical anesthetic. The numbing effect of the chemical also affects the throat which can potentially cause it to stop gagging. The gag reflex is a defense mechanism the body uses to clear the throat when it is blocked. However, if a person is incapacitated or the throat is numb, that gag reflex may not work. In such cases, a person could then choke to death on liquid or stomach bile if unconscious or close to it. Add alcohol use with cloves and teens can set themselves up for very dangerous situations quickly.
Eugenol can also numb or impair the lungs, making them susceptible to lung infections. It’s been common knowledge the heavy clove smoking use can cause serious lung damage very quickly. The federal government marketers are quick to say the effects are instead instant, but this is based on a few cases of extreme reaction. In such cases, the patients already had weakened lung systems, and the clove smoking made the situation worse. These cases can be read about here at the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.
According to the CDC, the damage involved can be:
- Injury to the lung tissue causing a decreased ability to absorb oxygen.
- A build up of fluid and mucous in the lungs due to irritated tissue.
- Bleeding or leakage from lung capillaries.
- Airflow obstruction at a far higher rate than regular smokers.
This is due the spice factor, which is a harsh inhalant to put into the lungs. When combined with eugenol, the risk of infection rises, which can lead to respiratory problems, sicknesses, and infections. Those who already have a weak immune system are more prone to reactions.
Recent Legal Changes
Cloves have been referred to or sold by a number of different product names ranging from honeyrose cigarettes to djarums and sweet sticks. In every instance, however, they have been sold because of the sweet taste enjoyed by a smoker using them. This particular attractant, which tends to be the primary reason teens smoke cloves, was one of the most vivid examples used to make cloves illegal in 2009 under the federal Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act. While the normal tobacco industry didn’t mind the legal change, since the law eliminated a market competitor for sales, the Act just make cloves that much more popular as an illegal contraband product now. Now cloves enjoy the same notoriety at marijuana, not being seen as a serious risk drug or problem yet titled illegal by the law.
To make matters more interesting, the federal law hasn’t actually removed djarum flavoured cigarettes from the regular market. Instead, manufacturers simply made their cloves a bit thicker with a different rolling process, and the product is now marketed as a cigar. Because cigars do not have flavor restrictions under federal law as cigarettes do, they are entirely legal to sell and buy to adults. So now the product available actually puts out more clove impact per puff because it is effectively a thicker cigarette in function.
In a twist of irony, the U.S. law affecting cloves was then appealed by Indonesia to the World Trade Organization, which ruled in their favor. The U.S. had “discriminated” against Indonesian products because it protected it’s own menthol cigarettes, which are also sweet-flavored. So now the federal government must face far strong lobbyists in either banning menthol cigarettes to be fair or to revert its own law as unfair. That’s a far bigger battle against conventional big tobacco lobbying money.
Coming Back Full Circle
While the U.S. government isn’t likely to just hand over millions of dollars to reimburse the Indonesian industry for its clove sale losses, the industry regulators are having to give serious consideration to the adverse WTO decision. For now, it seems they are leaning towards removing menthol cigarettes as well. This is signaled by the Food & Drug Administration’s interest in comments on a potential ban of such cigarettes. However, in the short term, that change is unlikely as big tobacco is a very hard industry to fight in Congress with a law change.
So parents have to get ready again to deal with the real possibility that cloves will again become readily available and children will get access to them. The attractive sweet flavor will often be the starter of interest, and the addiction will kick in quickly if left ignored and allowed to continue. Parents need to confront the issue on multiple levels. This includes:
- Repeatedly educating kids and teens on which smoking in general being unhealthy and bad.
- Identifying all the commercial sources of clove product sales in the community and keeping kids away from them. Most clove sellers tend to be small corner stores but they are sometimes carried by mom & pop grocery stores selling tobacco products as well.
- Informing school administrators and pressuring them to educate students on the problems and risks of clove smoking as well as regular smoking.
- Watching and monitoring pre-teens and teens for signs of clove smoking starting. For parents this includes the occasional clothes search, room search, and car search where it applies. Discretion helps. There’s no sense getting into a conflict when it can be avoided. Teens are sensitive enough about their space, but a good parent still has a job to do.
Cloves are officially banned, but the restriction is not going to hold well. Parents will be smart to be proactive and protect their children. Waiting for clove smoking to get bad before doing something can be a bad choice, especially with how quickly the product can cause serious lung problems.