Many in the medical field might raise an eyebrow upon hearing that cigarette smoke can be good for one’s health, given the numerous findings relating tobacco use to an increase in the risk of cancer.
Yet an Indonesian nanochemistry scientist is treating thousands of cancer patients in her clinic with modified cigarettes.
Seventy-one-year-old Greta Zahar, who holds a PhD in nanochemistry from the Bandung-based University of Padjadjaran, has been researching and developing specially treated cigarettes and cigarette filters, which she dubs the Divine Cigarette and Divine Filter, for more than a decade. She developed a detoxification process called balur (smear) treatment, which uses smoke from Divine Cigarettes as a conduit to capture and extract poisonous metal such as mercury from the body – a process she believes can be beneficial in treating cancer and several other diseases.
Her clinic, Griya Balur, in East Jakarta, has treated more than 30,000 patients, mostly stage three-to-four cancer sufferers, since 1998, she said. Not all patients can be helped and not all complete the full treatment. However, there are several outstanding cases in which patients in the late stages of cancer have significantly recovered after going on the treatment.
Her findings and treatment method were noted by Malang-based molecular biologist Sutiman B. Sumitro and GP Saraswati Subagjo.
The two changed from skeptics to proponents of Divine Cigarettes and the balur treatment when their spouses recovered from cancer after undergoing treatment with Greta. Since then, they have been working on bringing the science behind the Divine Cigarette and balur treatment up to date, by founding the Free Radical Disintegration Research Center. Saraswati also opened her own balur treatment clinic called Rumah Sehat (Healthy House) in 2007 in Malang.
As expected, it is difficult to take the idea of cigarettes as medical treatment into public discourse, Sutiman said. The idea contradicted the mainstream belief that tobacco use is detrimental to health, he said. Sutiman, a non-smoker, said he needed a super computer to do the research to provide solid evidence. Research funds, however, were lacking, he said.
When Australian businessman and former diplomat Murray Clapham underwent the treatment, he wrote an opinion piece in The Jakarta Post about the possibility of specially treated cigarettes as beneficial to health.
His op-ed received a flurry of comments, mostly disagreeing with his claim and assuming that Clapham was a tobacco lobbyist. In his piece, he related Greta’s findings without specifically elaborating on them. Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald newspaper also picked up the “bizarre” claim as news.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco use is the single most important factor in the risk of cancer. It is responsible for 1.8 million cancer deaths per year. WHO also states that lung cancer kills more people than any other cancer – a trend that is expected to continue until 2030, unless efforts to control global tobacco are greatly intensified.
In Indonesia, a country ranked as one of the top three cigarette consumers in the world with a booming tobacco industry, around 70 percent of Indonesian men older than 20 smoke and 400,000 Indonesians die each year from smoking-related illnesses, according to the WHO. Given the harmful effects of smoking, Muhammadiyah, one of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations, released an edict that smoking was haram (prohibited).
The scientists explained they were not challenging the claim that commercial cigarettes were toxic.
They said they were challenging the notion that nicotine and tar had detrimental effects to people’s health. Their hypothesis is that commercial cigarettes are dangerous as they contain traces of mercury, a highly toxic metal.
Using biradical theory, Greta developed Divine Cigarettes and Divine Filters by inserting aromatic “scavengers” – substances that react with and remove particular molecules, radicals, in this case mercury. She produces her own cigarettes and filters for her clinic and has developed 38 types of cigarettes.
Greta said that mercury was safe as long as it remained in the ground, but as mining activities boomed in the 1970s more mercury rose into the air. Mercury, combined with pollution and ozone layer destruction – which creates harsher UV sunrays – becomes dangerously radioactive, she said.
Greta said that amalgam tooth fillings, containing elements of mercury, and vaccines with mercury-based thimerosal preservatives, were important factors in the risk of cancer and autism in children.
WHO has confirmed that mercury contained in dental amalgam is the greatest source of mercury vapor in non-industrialized settings, exposing the population to mercury levels significantly exceeding those set for food and air. There are two opposing views from scientists on whether mercury exposure from amalgam fillings causes health problems. One side says that there is not enough evidence to prove it and the other says it does have detrimental effects.
On thimerosal, the WHO’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety, concluded that there was currently no evidence of mercury toxicity in infants, children or adults exposed to thimerosal in vaccines.
The balur treatment seeks to detoxify the body of mercury, Greta said. Patients lie down on a copper table. Two clinical assistants apply oil solutions to the skin with rubbing and smacking motions to open up the pores. The assistants then fill a large rubber syringe with cigarette smoke, then cover the whole body with smoke. Then they wrap the patient in aluminum foil.
“Usually after three months of treatment, their condition significantly improves. But they still have to be careful,” she said.
At her clinic, Greta demonstrated how the smoke entered the body. She filled the rubber syringe with smoke, positioned it on her head and pushed out the smoke so it covered the skin, entering the pores.
She repeated the process on the forearm of patient Ala Sulistyono. The smoke entered Ala’s forearm and left a flaky brown residue.
Nicotine is a chemical compound that is miscible with water and easily penetrates the skin. She said that the smoke could reduce the amount of toxins inside the body into nanoscale and extract them from the body.
Ala, who was diagnosed with stage three liver cancer in 2008 and was given around six to eight months to live, said that her health had significantly improved after following the treatment. It has been 21 months since her diagnosis, Ala said.
She added that the process was not pleasant, but that it worked for her. She continues to have blood tests and CT scans to document her improvement and she sends the results to Sutiman in Malang.
Lung specialist from the University of Indonesia Ahmad Hudoyo said that new breakthroughs in medical treatment should undergo evidence-based research. He said that they needed to be experimented with on animals and cell cultures before being tried on humans. “If there is no evidence, doctors cannot suggest it,” he said. “What’s important is the research should be transparent and be reviewed by other scientists,” he said.
Sutiman aims to undertake more research on Divine Cigarettes and its possible health benefits, as well as seek funding. He said that long and thorough research, as well as much more evidence was needed before they could publish their findings in international science journals for peer-review.
Greta, however, was not interested in seeking acknowledgment from international scientists. She said the findings in her 13-year PhD research on bi-radical development had not been given any consideration.
“I say that’s a waste of time [seeking acknowledgement from international scientists],” she said. “What’s my purpose? I want to help people. Do I need to announce that everywhere?
“Do we need proof from abroad that this country is special? If people consider you as tempeh, that’s good enough,” she said, lashing out on the Western medical sector’s perception of Indonesian scientists.
“Pak [Su]Timan has assumed a role the international community will accept,” she said of Sutiman’s approach. She said that she only laughed when she heard Clapham wrote an op-ed that provoked many comments. “I say to him, ‘Take that!’ but I also say ‘I am proud of you because you’re brave to set a fire.’