Exploring tobacco alternatives: herbal cigarettes, cannabis, and smokeless nicotine options

If someone wishes to give up tobacco for whatever reason, there are many options to explore. Tobacco smoking impacts around 1.2 billion people globally and is the primary cause of preventable premature death. Tobacco harm reduction advocates encourage educational efforts on smoking alternatives.1 It is important to note that smoking tobacco is part of cultural practices in many places of the world and not all people develop issues with it.2 Whether you are interested in quitting tobacco or not, this piece will explore some potential alternatives to smoking tobacco that includes the integration of other herbs as well as smokeless options.

Cannabis to interrupt nicotine addiction

Smoking cannabis is a common way to ingest the plant, and many people do so as a primary mode of administration. But is smoking cannabis really better for you than tobacco? It is difficult to answer this question definitively. A 2005 study suggested that smoking cannabis is not as harmful to the body as tobacco. Researchers demonstrated that there was no associated link between cannabis smoking and lung cancer and the antitumoral compounds in cannabis could potentially offset some of the carcinogenic effects of smoking it.3 This does not mean that smoking cannabis alone does not have associated risks and damages, since the combustion of any plant material is also associated with respiratory diseases and other ailments.

Non-smoking cannabis alternatives could be beneficial for enhancing the benefits of the plant and mitigating potential risks associated with smoking it. Yet from a risk reduction perspective, supplementing cannabis instead of tobacco in joints may help people decrease the amount of tobacco they consume. In addition, there is growing evidence that cannabis components may help interrupt nicotine addiction.4


Cannabidiol (CBD) has been investigated for its potential to help reduce dependency on alcohol, tobacco, and other substances. In a study of 24 smokers, those receiving a CBD inhaler significantly reduced their number of smoked cigarettes compared to the placebo group, despite no reported difference in cravings between groups. In another study, oral CBD seemed to diminish the importance of tobacco in people abstaining from it overnight as compared to placebo. CBD did not decrease withdrawals or cravings. Research indicates that CBD by itself may not be enough to abstain from tobacco in the long term, and may be best complemented with other support methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy.5

β-Caryophyllene (BCP)

BCP is a terpenoid found in a high concentration in some cannabis varieties and is also present in black pepper (Piper nigrum). A clinical trial of 48 cigarette smokers involved vaporizing black pepper essential oil, a mint-menthol mixture, or a placebo. Black pepper essential oil was found to significantly reduce cravings for nicotine due to it irritating the bronchial passage, which simulated the act of smoking without nicotine or burning plant material. Other terpenoids in black pepper including beta-caryophyllene, myrcene, and pinene may also support people in moving away from nicotine dependency.6

Preliminary evidence and anecdotal reports indicate that cannabis components like CBD and BCP could potentially be supportive of people who wish to decrease or limit tobacco consumption. Further exploration of cannabis components is needed, while also weighing the pros and cons of inhalation as a mode of administration.

Herbal non-tobacco alternatives

Some people opt to smoke various herbs alongside or as an alternative to tobacco. Herbal cigarettes are touted to be safer and healthier than tobacco cigarettes. As mentioned in the previous article in the series, there are a multitude of herbs that can be smoked. Some common examples include mullein (Verbascum thapsus), damiana (Turnera diffusa), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Despite being popular in certain crowds, there is no strong evidence regarding the safety profile of these botanicals when combusted and inhaled. Smoking herbal matter from any plant can produce carcinogenic effects, and that includes tobacco alternatives.7

China was the first country to create a combination of herbal and tobacco cigarettes indicated for the treatment of asthma and bronchitis. Asian tobacco companies have claimed herbal cigarettes can decrease health hazards by helping people quit smoking and reducing withdrawal symptoms. A deep dive on the topic by the American Chemical Society found that “herbal cigarettes are at least as dangerous as normal cigarettes.” They also mentioned smokable herbs such as damiana, mugwort, and coltsfoot may lead to notable metabolic problems that could increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. However, these findings are limited in scope so further research should be done.7

Studying herbs is relatively complex, and this is heightened by the plethora of components they contain, both known and unknown. The specific components of herbal alternatives that could help someone wean off of tobacco are not well understood. Some people prefer to continue smoking without tobacco and turn to other herbs to achieve this.

Smokeless tobacco options

Currently, there is very limited information on smokeless tobacco as a means to stop smoking.8 However, many people are able to stop smoking tobacco by utilizing it differently. Here are some smokeless tobacco options and some of their positive and negative attributes.

Rapè (Amazonian tobacco snuff that is often mixed with other plants)

  • Pros: Ceremonial practice as part of a longstanding relationship with the plant, efficient delivery of nicotine into the bloodstream, non-commercialized product.
  • Cons: Still contains carcinogens which can lead to cancer and other illnesses, lack of product standardization (making it difficult to research its health impacts), unregulated production.9

Vaporizer pen or electronic cigarettes

  • Pros: Nicotine is vaporized and therefore does not have the same level of carcinogens as smoked tobacco, minimal secondhand smoke, portable, refillable (some models).
  • Cons: Flavoring agents are safe in foods but can be problematic once inhaled, additives like propylene glycol can lead to EVALI or “popcorn lung,” electronic devices may contain heavy metals.9

Tobacco gum or patches

  • Pros: Gum can be used to quickly relieve cravings, patches offer a steady level of nicotine to help decrease withdrawal, scentless, no risk of secondhand smoke affecting others.
  • Cons: They don’t satisfy the act of smoking tobacco for many people, may cause side effects (nausea, vomiting, throat and mouth irritation, sleep deprivation).10

Growing your own tobacco

  • Pros: Building a deeper relationship to the plant, self-reliance, knowing your source, horticultural therapy, cost-effectiveness, no chemical additives, no reliance on Big Tobacco companies, repels garden pests.
  • Cons: Requires time and resources, does not avoid the potential negative health impacts of tobacco, potential for dependency.11

Closing thoughts

It is always a good time to explore our relationship with tobacco, cannabis, and other plants. Why are we connecting with them and what are they offering us? What are we providing in return? Are we using them as a crutch? Are we in control of the relationship or is it dominating us? It is helpful to look at our connection to plants without judgment and give ourselves the ability to tune into how they make us feel and see the world. May the exploration be sweet.


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    2. Nez Henderson P, Lee JP, Soto C, O′ Leary R, Rutan E, D′ Silva J, Waa A, Henderson ZP, Nez SS, Maddox R. Decolonization of Tobacco in Indigenous Communities of Turtle Island (North America) . Nicotine and Tobacco Research. 2022 Feb;24(2):289-91.
    3. Tashkin DP. Smoked marijuana as a cause of lung injury. Monaldi Archives for Chest Disease. 2005 Jun 30;63(2).
    4. Russo EB, Marcu J. Cannabis pharmacology: the usual suspects and a few promising leads. Advances in pharmacology. 2017 Jan 1;80:67-134.
    5. Chye Y, Christensen E, Solowij N, Yücel M. The endocannabinoid system and cannabidiol’s promise for the treatment of substance use disorder. Frontiers in psychiatry. 2019 Feb 19;10:63.
    6. Russo EB. Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid‐terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology. 2011 Aug;163(7):1344-64.
    7. Abdel Rahman RT, Kamal N, Mediani A, Farag MA. How Do Herbal Cigarettes Compare To Tobacco? A Comprehensive Review of Their Sensory Characters, Phytochemicals, and Functional Properties | ACS Omega. ACS omega. 2022 Dec 6;7(50):45797-809.
    8. Nethan ST, Sinha DN, Chandan K, Mehrotra R. Smokeless tobacco cessation interventions: A systematic review. The Indian journal of medical research. 2018 Oct;148(4):396.
    9. 1.Narby J, Rafael Chanchari Pizuri. Plant teachers : ayahuasca, tobacco, and the pursuit of knowledge. Novato, California: New World Library; 2021.
    10. Nicotine Gum: Friend or Foe [Internet]. Advanced Cancer Treatment Centers.
    11. Good DT. How To Grow Tobacco and Why You Should Grow It [Internet]. The Survival Gardener. 2014 [cited 2023 Mar 22].


There are various alternatives to tobacco smoking, including herbal cigarettes, cannabis, and smokeless nicotine sources. Smoking burned plant material from any botanical can produce carcinogenic effects. While there is no strong evidence regarding their safety profiles when combusted and inhaled, herbal cigarettes are often claimed to be safer than tobacco. Smokeless tobacco products have their pros and cons which are explored in this article. Cannabis components such as CBD and β-caryophyllene have been investigated for their potential to help reduce tobacco dependency. Ways to reexamine our relationship to smoking and our plant allies are explored.