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Excerpts from: The new tobacco threat. Young americans lighting up Indonesian cigarettes
By Jack Cox Denver Post [02/03/02]
Like some other things that come in plain brown wrappers, Indonesian clove-flavored
cigarettes exude an air of forbidden pleasures and exotic tastes.
That may explain why few adults in this country have heard of them, even though the strong-smelling imports appear to have become as popular among young urbanites as chewing tobacco among ranch kids.
"They're a very hot item," reports Nicholas Orlin, a clerk at Paris on the Platte, a Denver coffee house that stocks several types of the clove blends.
Researchers say the Indonesian products, called "kreteks" (pronounced "kree-tecks"), aren't nearly as widely smoked as conventional cigarettes. But health experts are concerned about their rising availability because kreteks contain two to three times more nicotine and tar than American brands. That means they may hook users more quickly than other forms of tobacco.
It's worrisome because many users appear to believe that the clove-scented sticks don't even contain tobacco - especially so in Colorado, where high school students are experimenting with the potent imports at twice the rate in most other states, according to the latest data available.
"They have lots of things that make them more dangerous than regular cigarettes," says Karen DeLeeuw, manager of the tobacco education and prevention program for the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. "We certainly would discourage kids from experimenting with them, because there have been reports of people getting really sick from them and damaging their lungs. And certainly, no one should be allowed to use them in schools."
Bob Doyle, director of tobacco control programs for the American Lung Association of Colorado, notes "a misconception among teens that "natural' cigarettes may not be as bad, and that's part of the problem - it's one of the ways teens can get into using tobacco and not quite understand the health implications."
Like other forms of tobacco, kreteks can't legally be purchased in Colorado and most other states by people under 18. But surveys indicate that minors are often able to obtain them by "borrowing" or by buying them without having to show proof of their age.
It's unclear how widespread the use of kreteks has become in this country, says Samira Asma, an Atlanta-based epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But sales have soared in recent years, in part because the products are readily available over the Internet, she says.
"Usually, people think that clove cigarettes are safer, but they don't realize how much their throat is hurt, because the harshness of the tobacco is masked by the cloves, which act as a natural anesthetic," Asma says. "Our basic message is that tobacco in any form or any level is harmful."
According to the latest national youth tobacco survey, conducted every other year by the CDC, nearly 14 percent of Colorado high school students have tried kreteks, compared to a median of 7 percent in the other states surveyed.
The survey, based on questionnaires filled out anonymously by some 36,000 students nationwide in the spring of 2000, indicated the average youth was somewhat less likely to have experimented with kreteks than with smokeless tobacco - and much less likely to have tried kreteks than conventional cigarettes.
But it also found that 4.2 percent of the high schoolers - in Colorado and elsewhere - were current users of kreteks, compared to about 6.6 percent for smokeless tobacco and 28 percent for cigarettes.
Kreteks, named for the crackling sound that cloves make when burning, are reportedly as much a part of Indonesian culture as burgers and fries in the United States. Sixty percent of all men in the predominantly Muslim country smoke kreteks regularly, and taxes on the products are said to be the government's second-largest source of revenue after oil and gas.
Kreteks normally contain a blend of two-thirds tobacco and one-third cloves, come in filtered or unfiltered varieties, can be machine-made or hand-rolled, and are usually wrapped in brown paper, although they also come in white paper or in ironed-out corn husks.
Several brands are available in the United States, including Garam, Djarum and Sampoerna (the Big Three), as well as Bentoel, Kuti, Jakarta, Krakatoa, Bina, Terong and Tegar. They can be purchased in small grocery stores or specialty shops for $3 to $5 per pack of 20, or online for under $30 a carton.
A marketing pitch for one Web-based supplier proclaims that kreteks "have become a luxury for the young and trendy, as well as a different taste for anyone who enjoys fine tobacco."
Judging from the comments of some who have tried kreteks, however, not all of the young and trendy agree.
"I think they're disgusting. They taste like you're swallowing incense, basically," said Sean Daugherty, a 20-year-old Denverite who tried kreteks as a teenager.
Chris Langmeier, 29, who was sharing a table with Daugherty at Paris on the Platte one evening recently, said a Djarum cigarillo he had finished was "just a change of pace," noting he normally smokes regular cigarettes. But he described kreteks as "part of the counter-culture crowd."
Orlin, who mans the cigarette counter at Paris on the Platte most nights, estimated he sells three packs of the clove-flavored brands for every four packs of conventional cigarettes. The Indonesian products, he added, have all but displaced another import called "bidis" (or "beedies"), which are small, fruit-flavored cigarettes hand-rolled in India and secured with thread.
"They were very popular four or five years ago," he said of bidis, which come in flavors ranging from cherry and grape to mango and lime, "but we stopped stocking them a few months ago. They didn't sell."
Asma, who studies emerging tobacco products for the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health, said one reason why bidis may be falling out of favor is that they've become more expensive.
When they first entered the U.S. market a decade or so ago, she explained, bidis were classified as cigars and thus could be sold in packs of fewer than 20, making them more affordable for young buyers. Now they are subject to the same packaging rules as regular cigarettes, including the 20-per-pack minimum and labeling with a surgeon general's warning and the legend "Underage Sale Prohibited."
In addition, Asma said, many states have made it illegal not just for youths under 18 to buy bidis, but for vendors to sell them to underage customers, and at least one state - Illinois - has outlawed them entirely.
So far, no Western manufacturers appear to be interested in making kreteks.
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