Dried rose petals, raspberry leaves, and chamomile — these sound like flavorful additions to a warm cup of tea, and they are. But they’re apparently also popular as an herbal cigarette among wellness influencers and those looking to kick their tobacco addiction.
For decades, herbal cigarettes have been sold in markets in China, South Korea, and Thailand. Now, they’re on TikTok too. Despite insufficient studies on their safety, herbal smokes are now sitting snugly in the corner shared by WitchTok and the New Age wellness community.
Often dressed in vibey packaging, they look just like cigarettes or joints but supposedly do not contain any nicotine or cannabis. They’re usually homemade with a wide range of plant sources, including rose petals, mugwort, lavender, mullein, damiana, blue lotus, peppermint, skullcap, and raspberry leaves.
“In modern day, a lot of traditional practices like smoking organic herbs for specific reasons are left untapped, unresearched, and lost in tradition. [This leaves] us with only knowledge on what's normalized, which is usually plain toxic tobacco cigarettes,” Romaine Deo, founder of an Australia-based handmade herbal smokes company, told VICE.
Deo described herbal cigarettes, which are believed to be non-addictive, as “tools to help get through addictive relationships with weed [or] tobacco.”
“Most tobacco smokers report feeling calm and relaxed after a cigarette. Alternatively, I created a herbal smoking mix that fills this void using naturally calming ingredients such as chamomile,” said Deo.
She said smoking mugwort “in moderance” can be an alternative to weed, though the plant “doesn’t involve the effects of being high.”
Anulika Agu, who sells herbal tea blends online, told VICE that she was introduced to herbal cigarettes in 2017, during a foray into the world of herbalism and holistic health. She said herbal cigarettes are used for a wide range of things like alleviating insomnia, anxiety, and menstrual cramps.
“Individuals can also deepen their meditation and enhance lucid dreaming experiences with herbal cigarettes,” she said.
On TikTok, herbal smokes are featured in aesthetic videos where users create an ethereal ambiance.
Meanwhile, witty TikTokers blend (pun intended) their herbal smokes into popular TikTok memes, all for a good chuckle.
There are also TikTok videos that serve as informative guides for the uninitiated, explaining the functions of different herbs. Chamomile, for example, is claimed to help with insomnia and acne.
“There was a period in my life where THC only left me with extreme anxiety, paranoia, and panic attacks. I began using my own herbal smokes that I made as an alternative. ...It was definitely life-changing and helped with my depression, insomnia, and anxiety,” said Agu, who also shares her expertise through snappy TikTok videos.
However, it’s important to note that there’s still a lack of scientific evidence proving these benefits. In fact, there is a huge dearth of research on the effects of herbal smokes. The fact that you’re smoking anything at all could take a physical toll on your body — inhaling combustion smoke of any kind, be it from cigarettes or forest fires, is almost certainly going to be bad for you.
Matt Springer, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said that the absence of nicotine and THC in herbal cigarettes could reduce risks of physical addiction and “negative effects on the heart” associated with traditional cigarettes and joints. But that is not the only concern.
“Many of the harmful health effects of smoking are caused by the other thousands of chemicals in smoke from burning plant material,” Springer said. “There's no reason to think that burning the various plants used in herbal cigarettes are any different in that regard.”
“While we know about the harmful effects of burning generic plant material, smoke from specific plants has certain chemicals unique to those plants,” Springer added. “And we can’t assume that these chemicals are harmless. … Just because you can eat it, doesn't mean you can inhale it.”
He gave diacetyl as an example. The chemical gives some popcorn a buttery flavor and is safe to eat, but seriously harmful when inhaled.
Despite their popularity in the wellness community, even the TikTokers who use them have cautioned against reckless consumption of herbal smokes.
Agu advised those who are on medication to “consult with their primary care physician before use.”
Meanwhile, Deo noted that herbal smokes may be “especially harmful” for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
“It’s important to acknowledge that smoking in general is harmful to the lungs,” she said. “I cannot stress how important it is to research what you smoke and to smoke in moderation.”