This is This Is Now A Thing, where we check out the science behind new health trends.
The thing: Billy55 is a new company that has created a cigarette made purely of green tea—with no nicotine. While new in America, it’s been commonplace in Vietnam for at least a few decades, which is where acupuncturist and Billy55 founder Ranko Tutulugdzija found it.
As an acupuncturist, Tutulugdzija said he had lots of patients trying to find a natural way to quit smoking, and he remembered seeing green tea cigarettes—rolled green tea leaves with no nicotine in them. The idea? “Get the smoker to have the same sensation as smoking,” Tutulugdzija told TIME. “They don’t feel as guilty and they have more motivation to stop.”
The cigarettes, named after Tutulugdzija’s mother Biljana—referred to as “Billy”—come in regular and menthol varieties and are made out of tea originating from Nanjing and Beijing in China. They cost $2.50 per pack.
The hype: Green tea cigarettes are part of a three-step, 90-day smoking cessation method developed by Tutulugdzija. It’s an “all-natural” program that includes taping five mustard seeds onto acupressure points that Tutulugdzija says can help you quit.
Following the program, Tutulugdzija says, will eventually “downgrade” the addiction to a habit. “Habits are much easier to break than addiction,” he says. “If you smoke green tea, you don’t have a chemical [nicotine] working on your neuroreceptors to cause addiction. There’s a big difference between something with nicotine and something without it.”
The research: The FDA denied TIME’s request for comment, saying it “does not discuss the regulatory status of specific products except with the firms and individuals that are responsible for such products.”
CDC spokesperson Joel London said that while research hasn’t been done into green tea cigarettes specifically, a combination of counseling and medication has been proven to be most effective in kicking a smoking habit to the curb.
Donna Richardson, a clinical social worker and addictions specialist with Rutgers University’s Tobacco Dependence Program, agrees. She said most addictions experts use one of the seven methods approved by the FDA, five of which include nicotine (the gum, patch, lozenges, nasal spray, an inhaler). “It’s the nicotine people smoke for,” she says. “There’s a dopamine release that happens with each puff. So if they’re smoking tea, they’re not getting dopamine, and they’d still be in withdrawal.”
Richardson says the key to quitting smoking doesn’t mean quitting nicotine cold turkey. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Smoking—”no matter if it’s lettuce or tea or rolled-up newspaper”—is the harmful act. That’s because the act of setting something on fire releases carbon monoxide, and breathing that carbon monoxide in, no matter what the source, infiltrates red blood cells, which should be taking in oxygen instead. “Our lungs don’t like polluted air,” she says.
For his part, Tutulugdzija says it has been only two months since his company began testing the efficacy of the product for quitters, but that “we’re getting positive feedback.”
Regarding the healthfulness of his product, Tutulugdzija says, “There’s no such thing as ‘healthy’ smoking.”
The taste: Two social smokers at TIME tried the menthol and plain varieties of green-tea cigarettes, which were harder to light than normal cigarettes. The two testers discerned almost no flavor, but the inhaled smoke did make the testers feel lightheaded. The menthol type was slightly minty, but it, too, lacked any expected, discernible green tea or herbal flavor. Tutulugdzija describes the flavor this way: “They don’t taste like a cigarette, but there’s a green tea scent.”
The bottom line: Dr. Michael Steinberg, who heads the Rutgers Dependence Program, says this: “It’s probably not the safest way to try to quit smoking and there’s no strong scientific evidence it helps to quit.”
Steinberg acknowledges that green tea cigarettes may address a behavioral component that makes quitting smoking challenging, but thinks the oral fixation is better off handled with toothpicks, cinnamon sticks, or something else that doesn’t emit smoke.
Richardson echoes Steinberg’s skepticism. “I wouldn’t have anyone I care about smoking green tea cigarettes to quit,” she said.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story included a definition of cigarettes misattributed to the FDA. It was included in error and has been removed.
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