December 3, 2009

Chinese 'Herbal' Cigarettes No Healthier Than Regular Ones

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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Despite popular belief and some marketing claims, researchers have found that Chinese "herbal" cigarettes that combine medicinal herbs with tobacco are just as addictive and no safer than regular cigarettes.
"The public needs to be aware that herbal cigarettes do not deliver fewer carcinogens," said lead researcher Stanton A. Glantz, Ph.D., professor of medicine in the Department of Medicine and Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. "We hope our findings will help to dispel the myth that they are a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes; they are not."

Results of this study appear in the December issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, which has a special focus on tobacco.

Chinese herbal cigarettes are becoming increasingly more popular in China and elsewhere in the world. Glantz, along with colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco and researchers at the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, examined the levels of four markers to determine differences in the delivery of nicotine and carcinogens between the two marketed products. They compared 135 people who smoked herbal cigarettes and 143 people who smoked regular tobacco cigarettes. The study was conducted in one city in China.

After analyzing participants' urine samples and evaluating questionnaires, the researchers observed no significant difference in the levels of all four markers: cotinine and trans-3'-hydroxycotinine, two markers of nicotine intake, and total 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-butanol and total polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are two classes of carcinogens.

"Levels of carcinogens were correlated with measures of nicotine intake, meaning that the more nicotine smokers took in, the higher the levels of carcinogens they took in," Glantz said.

Furthermore, 47 percent of participants who switched to herbal cigarettes did so because herbal cigarettes had a "better taste," and 24 percent switched because of their health concerns and the notion that herbal cigarettes were a healthier alternative. Most participants who switched to herbal cigarettes reported an increase in number of cigarettes smoked per day.

"Adding herbs to the cigarettes would not be expected to affect the nicotine, which is the addictive drug in tobacco, and cancer-causing chemicals in the smoke of cigarettes," said Glantz. "The Chinese tobacco industry should avoid misleading the public when promoting herbal cigarettes as 'safer' products."

Tara Yates
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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
September 23, 2010

Last Updated:
December 3, 2013