Are Herbal Cigarettes Healthier Than Tobacco Cigarettes?

Most herbal cigarettes are produced in China. There are over 20 distinct brands. They claim to relieve respiratory symptoms and reduce toxins, and a few herb-only products also tout claims that they help people to stop smoking.

Key takeaways:
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    There are over 20 brands of herbal cigarettes.
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    Herbal cigarettes have more tar and nicotine present than traditional cigarettes.
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    No scientific data is available that supports the theory that herbal cigarettes are healthy alternatives to traditional cigarettes.
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    The best way to quit smoking is to stop it in its entirety.

Unfortunately, there is no scientific literature that can verify these claims.

It appears that although herbal cigarettes may be pleasant tasting, they may be more dangerous than tobacco cigarettes. They contain 2 to 3 times as much tar and nicotine as regular tobacco cigarettes.

How did Asian herbal cigarettes get their beginning?

Asian herbal cigarettes got their beginning in China in the 1970s and were then introduced in Japan a decade later.

Most botanical preparations or extracts are evaluated by the Threshold of Toxicological Concern (TTC) approach to assess the safety of botanical preparations that may contain potentially genotoxic constituents based on the estimation of the fraction that may be genotoxic.

Despite the initial excitement that herbal cigarettes were safer than tobacco, TTC analyses showed that they were not palatable and possessed toxic cardiovascular effects.

Despite these initial reports, by the 1990s, China began increasing its herbal cigarette production and tried to reduce the harmful components.

By 2000, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand jumped on the production bandwagon to produce comparable products.

The claim was that Asian herbs had been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.

Western herbal cigarettes hit the market, stating that the ingredients, such as hazel and rose petals, were not considered medicinal, nor were they mixed with any tobacco.

Difference between tobacco and herbal cigarette

Cigarette smoke is a complex mixture of chemicals, some of which are found only in trace amounts. Thermal decomposition and thermal synthesis create a variable array of compounds, many of which are found on the list of hazardous components in the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Major components of cigarette smoke from mainstream smoke have an impact on the human body and are classified as carcinogens. This is no surprise, and we have known this information for years.

Many tobacco smokers seek nicotine replacement therapy to help with withdrawal symptoms. Many people try non-smoking aids, such as nicotine patches, nicotine gum, herbal cigarettes, and e-cigarette, to help smokers stop smoking.

As an example of ways tobacco smokers have attempted to quit, many smokers in Korea started to use herbal cigarettes as a non-smoking aid, and the success of smokers switching to herbal cigarettes caught some attention in the US and other Western countries.

Herbal cigarettes contain herbs rather than tobacco leaves as the raw material. The problem is that the mainstream smoke condensates of herbal cigarettes are similar to tobacco cigarettes in their mutagenic properties because of the combustion products.

Who is the leading producer of herbal cigarettes?

By far, the leading producer of herbal cigarettes remains China. Herbal cigarettes were first touted as a treatment for asthma and bronchitis. An example is the Nanjing Herbal Company which was the first to make the YangJinHua brand by mixing Flos daturaea herb with tobacco to treat asthma.

Tianjin Cigarette Factory developed another brand Anti‐Asthma in the early 1970s with an unknown herbal ingredient.

According to a 2002 Chinese news article, Tianjin hospital had observed these Anti‐Asthma cigarettes to be 98.6% effective in relieving symptoms of asthma and bronchitis among 140 asthmatic patients. However, the production was small, and the cigarettes required a prescription for medical use.

Herbal cigarettes developed after TobaccoChina.com reported in 2000 to have demonstrated health benefits often through scientific research collaborations, although no scientific publications were named or found in PubMed: Wuyeshen, KangXi, JiangShan, Puleye, QunYingHui, and Green Oriental.

What are the research claims regarding herbal cigarettes?

As an example of some of the claims, Chinese research results from “Wuyeshen's secret of harm reduction” showed that the natural herbal extract:

  • Has no toxic side effects, causes no addiction, and is good for chronic use.
  • Dramatically suppresses the toxic effects of the carcinogen in cigarettes.
  • Greatly reduces the content of nitrosamine and nitrosamine by 61.5% compared to regular cigarettes.
  • Has antimutagenic effects according to SCE testing (with human lymphatic cells).
  • Produces less toxicity to mice that ingested the product into the stomach.
  • Repairs a damaged respiratory tract.
  • Mice that smoked 70 Wuyeshen had a survival rate of 100%, compared with the 15% when smoking regular cigarettes. Secondhand smoke, reduces the toxic effects on mice and increases survival dramatically.
  • Stops coughing, dyspnea, and phlegm production and improves circulation.

Unfortunately, there is no literature in PubMed in the most accepted medical literature to verify any of these findings.

Korean Herbal cigarette brands that are thought to be “safe”?

The tar content was found to be higher than tobacco cigarettes. These cigarettes had some benefits, however, such as no detectable levels of tobacco-specific nitrosamines and nicotine.

Overall, the mainstream smoke of herbal cigarettes did contain some toxic components, and the safety was no different or less than traditional tobacco cigarettes. It did not matter that these herbal cigarettes were made in Korea rather than China.

What should you do?

The answer to what to do is to stop smoking altogether, whether it is tobacco or herbal.

Herbal cigarettes are touted to have respiratory benefits and healthier alternatives to tobacco cigarettes, but none of the medical literature verifies this to be true.

Some four herb-only products are advertised as a method for smoking cessation, but even if you stop smoking tobacco, herbal products are no safer.

Despite initial positive reports in a trial in Korea, TTC analyses showed herbal cigarettes were not palatable and may increase cardiovascular risks.

Concerns about the health effects of Asian herbal cigarettes may affect the development or promotion of these products in the future.

The quality of any clinical research regarding herbal cigarette products is and will always be difficult to interpret since the news articles, tobacco documents, and company websites need to provide more than general summaries with substantial data to back their claims.

While herbal cigarettes are available, they are not beneficial to your health. Herbal cigarettes often include more tar and nicotine, therefore increasing the detrimental effects of these novel cigarettes.