The Health Effects of Clove Cigarettes

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Kretek (Clove Cigarettes)

Kretek (kre'tek) are cigarettes made with a complex blend of tobacco, cloves and a flavoring 'sauce'. The word "kretek" itself is an onomatopoetic term for the crackling sound of burning cloves.

Haji Jamahri, a resident of Kudus, Java, created kreteks in the early 1880s as a means to deliver the medicinal eugenol of cloves to the lungs, as it was thought to help asthma. It cured his chest pains and he started to market his invention to the village, but he died before he could mass market it. M. Nitisemito took his place and began to commercialize the new cigarettes. Today, kretek manufacturers directly employ over 180,000 people in Indonesia and an additional 10 million indirectly.

Partly due to favorable taxation compared to "white" cigarettes, kreteks are by far the most widely-smoked form of cigarettes in Indonesia, where about 90% of smokers usually smoke kreteks. In Indonesia, there are hundreds of kretek manufacturers, including small local makers and major brands. Most of the widely-known international brands, including Bentoel, Djarum, Gudang Garam, Jakarta, Sampoerna, Dji Sam Soe, and Wismilak, originate from Indonesia. Nat Sherman of the United States produces cigarettes branded as "A Touch of Clove" but are arguably not kreteks since they contain clove flavoring in the filter rather than actual clove spice mixed with the tobacco.


The origin of kretek cigarettes traces to the late 19th century. The creator of kretek was one Haji Jamahri, a native of the town of Kudus in Indonesia’s Central Java region. Suffering from chest pains, Haji Jamahri attempted to reduce the pain by rubbing clove oil on his chest. Jamahri sought a means of achieving a deeper relief and smoked his hand-rolled cigarettes after adding dried clove buds. According to the story, his asthma and chest pains vanished immediately. Word of Jamahri’s amazing discovery spread rapidly among his neighbors and the clove cigarettes soon became available in pharmacies under the name of rokok cengkeh – clove cigarettes. Although first discovered as a medicinal product, kreteks also became popular for the feeling of delight it offers.

In those years, the locals used to hand-roll kreteks to sell on order without any specific brand or packing. A resident of Kudus called Nitisemito had the brilliant idea of starting serial production and selling kreteks under a proprietary brand name. Unlike other manufacturers, Nitisemito who first created the Bal Tiga brand in 1906 enjoyed great success by implementing unprecedented marketing techniques such as using embossed packs or offering free-of-charge promotional materials.

Furthermore, he also developed a production system which was called as the abon system and which offered great opportunities for other entrepreneurs without enough capital. In this system, a person called as “abon” assumes the job of delivering finished products to the company which pays the price of piecework done whereas the company is liable to supply the necessary production materials to the “abons”. This system is important in terms of allowing for the employment of people who must remain home to care for the children and the elderly.

However, as industry improved, manufacturers who wanted to make sure of the high product quality and standards opted to have their workers working under the roof of their own factories. Nowadays, only several kretek manufacturers make use of the abon system.

During the period from 1960 until 1970, kreteks became a national symbol against “white cigarettes”. In mid 1980’s, the amount of machine-produced cigarettes exceeded the amount of hand-rolled ones. As one of the largest income sources of Indonesia, the kretek industry comprises 500 large and small manufacturers as well as 10 million employees.

The quality and variety of tobacco play an important role in kretek production. One kretek brand can contain more than 30 types of tobacco. Minced dried clove buds weighing about 1/3 of the tobacco blend are added. This new blend is then flavored with a “sauce”. Kept strictly confidential by many kretek manufacturers, the recipes for these special sauces contain various fruit and spice essences as well as numerous natural aromas. The last process which machine-made or hand-rolled kreteks go through is the spraying of saccharine all over the cigarette.

Djarum Black cigarettes sold in Europe and South American countries have 10–12mg tar and 1mg nicotine, as indicated on the pack. This level of tar and nicotine is comparable to the majority of other regular or "full-flavor" cigarettes available. However, Djarum Black cigarettes produced for consumption in Indonesia contain a significantly higher quantity of Tar and Nicotine, 25mg and 1.6mg respectively. In Canada, Djarum Black cigarettes are listed as containing 42.2–76mg of tar and 1.88–3.39mg of nicotine, a significant amount more than most other cigarettes.

The venous plasma nicotine and carbon monoxide levels from 10 smokers were tested after smoking kreteks and were found to be similar to non-clove brands of cigarettes, such as Marlboro.

Rats were given equal inhalation doses of conventional tobacco cigarettes and kreteks over a short period. Those that had inhaled kreteks did not appear to show worse health effects compared to those that had inhaled conventional cigarettes. The study was repeated with a 14-day exposure and kreteks again did not produce worse health effects than conventional cigarettes.

The eugenol in clove smoke causes a numbing of the throat which can diminish the gag reflex in users, leading researchers to recommend caution for individuals with respiratory infections. There have also been a few cases of aspiration pneumonitis in individuals with normal respiratory tracts possibly because of the diminished gag reflex. Researchers recommend that people who have an allergy to cloves should avoid kreteks.

In the United States, kreteks have been the subject of legal restrictions and political debate, including a proposed 2004 US Senate bill that would have prohibited cigarettes from having a "characterising flavor" of certain ingredients other than tobacco and menthol. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found kreteks account for a relatively small percentage of underage smoking, and their use was declining among high school students. Critics of the bill argued that support of the bill by the large U.S. tobacco maker Philip Morris, which makes only conventional and menthol cigarettes, indicated that the bill was an attempt to protect the company from competition.[citation needed]

Some U.S. states, including Utah, New Mexico, and Maryland, have passed laws that prohibit the sale of kreteks. On 14 March 2005, Philip Morris International announced the purchase of Indonesian tobacco company PT HM Sampoerna after acquiring a 40% stake in Sampoerna from a number of Sampoerna’s principal shareholders.


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