Q.: My 16-year-old daughter has just surprised and disappointed me by disclosing that she has been smoking herb cigarettes (mostly cloves, she says) for several months. The name is "kretek"; 10 cigarettes cost about $2!
I know nothing about this type of cigarette. What are its effects physically and mentally? She smokes one per day (maximum) and says they relax her.
A: Kretek cigarettes come from Indonesia and they're really flavored with a spice -- cloves -- mixed with regular tobacco in about equal amounts.
The thin cigarettes come filtered and non-filtered, in a tin or not, regular length or international. They're expensive and they're bad for you, but they're not a narcotic.
Kreteks were the exotic fad of new wave devotees about two years ago. Walk in a popular young people's club then, it was said, and all you could smell was beer and cloves. Since then they've become less fashionable.
In a sense, a kretek a day is nothing to be particularly worried about. It's more worrisome that your daughter feels she needs to take something to "relax."
Part of this may come from following the leaders: adults who think they need coffee to move quicker in the morning; cigarettes to think better; a cocktail to unwind at night and maybe tranquilizers and sleeping pills to get from day to day. Anyone on the verge of adulthood, like your daughter, might think that's the way it should be.
Her contemporaries also set bad examples. Although the American Council for Drug Education says the popularity of pot is waning among teen-agers (and rising among 8-12-year-olds), the latest study showed that 5 percent of high school seniors smoke it regularly and 27 percent had used it the previous month.
Alcohol is at least as prevalent. One out of 5 teen-agers between 14 and 17 have repeated problems handling it -- some to a fatal degree.
The first thing you can do is recognize that your daughter, like all teen-agers, is under stress. It's tough to do your parents' bidding when you're eager to run your own life, and it's especially tough when you know you're not quite ready. Your daughter needs to know that you respect her qualms and still trust her judgment.
Since knowledge will make her a better judge, she also should know that smoking ordinary tobacco -- with or without cloves -- can cause lung cancer, heart disease and wrinkles; that nicotine is highly addictive; that cigarettes contain an unknown number of additives (1,400 are allowed), and that it makes the breath smell awful, even with cloves.
She also needs to know the facts about other drugs, before she's tempted to experiment.
Alcohol is a socially accepted drug for adults, yet alcoholism is rampant. In what increasingly appears to be a biochemical problem, it strikes some but not others, without obvious reason.
Even taken regularly and with some moderation, alcohol interferes with the development of the muscles; it lowers the spirit and it lessens the testosterone output. Marijuana is also a depressant with sexual side effects.
Dr. Carol Smith of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio -- probably the country's top expert on marijuana and its effects on women -- is particularly concerned about its effects on teen-agers. There may be, she says, a "critical time" for the body to develop its sexual organs fully and achieve normal fertility.
Pot used heavily in early puberty can inhibit this development, she says, and boys may grow less face and chest hair, have a higher voice than they would have had and a somewhat smaller penis (although these problems may be corrected if marijuana use is stopped later). Heavy use of pot (or alcohol) also may make boys develop breasts; if girls use much marijuana in early puberty, their breasts may be smaller.
Early marijuana use also may be one cause of our rising infertility rate. One out of five couples now have trouble conceiving children. Nor does anyone know if the toxins from pot, in the years before pregnancy, affect the eggs that come packed in the ovaries at birth. Certainly the use of marijuana during pregnancy can cause birth defects similar to or the same as fetal alcohol syndrome. This is especially true if it is used with alcohol, even in fairly small amounts.
An excellent new book, Getting Over Getting High by Bernard Green (Quill, $6.95), explains the physiological reasons for the highs -- and lows -- of each drug, and tells which nutrients, exercise and relaxation techniques make withdrawal fairly easy and provide a better high.
Your support will also help. If you listen to her troubles, and listen regularly, she may relax enough to let the kreteks alone.