"I was out at a club and everybody went outside for a smoke break. I brought out an [herbal cigarette] and immediately everyone could smell it. It was like incense. Everyone formed a circle and wanted to try it," Siena Perez del Campo told me. Del Campo is the woman behind Holy Smokes, a line of herbal cigarettes that promise to not only replace your bad smoking habit but turn it into something that nourishes you instead.
"Before I did that, everyone was smoking their own cigarette and looking at their phones, consuming their tobacco, consuming Instagram," she continued. "They were alone, but they wanted connection from Facebook. They wanted to 'like' things. But suddenly we were all connected and having a conversation about plants. We were able to access this subconscious current that we are all riding."
Gurus claim they can heal all that ails you, if you just follow their prescriptive path. As the taxes on cigarettes have made them a completely unjustifiable expense, and the idea of wellness takes hold of the American psyche, tobacco use has increasingly become a habit that even most hardcore smokers recognize it's time to break. Luckily, there are many curative cults to join.
While the that of e-cigarettes is the most fashionable now—because it allows you to give up smoking without actually giving up smoking—an alternative to that alternative is popping up among those inclined to substitute traditional offerings. Finally, a smoking swap that for those more inclined towards green juice than bro-ing down: No longer just a dull aide to help the normally nicotine-addicted quit tobacco, herbal cigarettes are enjoying a second life in the hands of mystics and witches who want to quit tobacco, and help others do the same. Alternative smokes have gone New Age.
While Tumblr posts with titles like "The Good Witch Guide to Smoking Herbs" will tell you how to make your own blends out of mugwort and lavender, the craft of rolled plant matter is already a profitable business. Holy Smokes is one of several brands that mainly sell online, through boutique sites where one could find wild-crafted tinctures and protective sage sprays. Their cigarettes come in a few different blends, each made from herbs that del Campo harvests with her partner in Santa Barbara, where they currently live, and Argentina, where they are both from: Inka Pinka, which is said to uplift your spirit; Focus Pocus, for, well, focus; and Dream Time, for a relaxing sleep. The blends are further distinguished based on the timing of the harvest—either on the full moon or the new moon.
Ultimately, each blend is crafted toward relaxation, del Campo says. "When you go to take a smoke break, you don't want more stress. You don't want to feel riled up. You want to feel clear and calm," she explained.
Admittedly, I would be one of the first people to say, without a doubt, that a crystal has shifted my energy. Or that the moon, for whatever reason, is really impacting me right now. Though I've tried smoking mugwort—not from Holy Smokes, but out of a bag of the stuff that I ordered on Amazon in a stoned haze—and I can't really tell what it does. It may have made my dreams "more intense," but it also burned my throat. It was a very different feeling from cannabis or even tobacco; I sort of felt like I was smoking singed paper, leading me to believe that maybe this is something I just shouldn't be inhaling. With all the company's rhetoric about healing (the parent company for Holy Smokes is called "Moon Minded Medicine"), it's not hard to imagine that herbal cigarettes are actually unhealthy.
"I think it is reasonable to expect that smoke from any burned dried plant material will impair vascular function, regardless of what other physiological effects might result from the specific plant," Matt Springer, a researcher who frequently experiments with smoke at the University of California San Francisco, chided. While he's done research on the effects of cannabis and tobacco smoke, he hasn't specifically looked into herbal cigarettes. "I can't say for sure, but I would be surprised if they didn't share the effects of tobacco and marijuana smoke."
To be fair, though, Springer is very anti-smoke—he even thinks bonfires are bad for your health. But most mainstream health authorities feel the same: A recent study found that herbal cigarettes have a lot of the same toxic compounds as tobacco cigarettes—simply because they release smoke—minus nicotine and the harmful, tobacco-specific carcinogen nitrosamine. Even del Campo is careful to emphasize that these cigarettes aren't medicine, despite their marketing, which states literally the opposite.
"In terms of medicinal qualities, it's still smoking," she said. "We tell people to err on the side of caution when they first try it. Just because they're herbs doesn't mean they don't affect you."
Rather, she sees her company as promoting an attitude. "I see Holy Smokes as something that's inciting connections," she said. "People can slow down and take a look at what they're consuming. It doesn't have any nicotine or anything that's addicting in it, so it doesn't control you in that way. It brings you closer to these sacred elements: fire and air."
In other words, it seems safe to say it's better to get your fire-and-air fix from linden flower than tobacco, but there's very little research on what smoking herbal cigarettes does in the long-term. Just use a vaporizer!
Is This Bad For Me? is a new column that encourages you to be worried about everything.