While the effects of marijuana are being studied and analysed in greater detail than ever before, one question has remained difficult to answer – Is there any evidence that marijuana causes the same lung damage as tobacco does to tobacco smokers?
With the emergence of medical marijuana in the mid to late 90s and the subsequent legalisation of recreational cannabis in countries like Canada and the US, cannabis has undergone a dramatic cultural shift, with new legality opening the doors to more-in-depth analysis on its wide-ranging benefits and effects.
Unfortunately, though, current studies on the specific effects of marijuana on the lungs remain limited and suffer from fundamental flaws, which has left us with too many variables to make any reliable conclusions on the safety of smoking cannabis. While the dangers of tobacco smoking and its connection to decreased lung health and lung cancer as well as a number of other health effects are now without question, the same questions about marijuana and lung health have gone largely unanswered.
The Low Down on Combustion
While there are many forms of combustion, the most well-known is fire. In the general sense, it’s a particular type of chemical reaction between substances that involves the combination of oxygen in the air and the generation of heat in the form of flame. When combusted, the material produces gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), which are the main by-products of burned materials.
Whether you’re smoking tobacco, smoking cannabis, or sitting by an open fire, materials burned in any form also includes the inhalation of the chemicals within them. However, when we compare cannabis and tobacco, they do not produce the same products and by-products. This might explain why the effects of exposure in marijuana smoke differ from those associated with tobacco or cigarette smoke.
Cannabis vs Tobacco: Up in Smoke
Widely recognized as the leading (preventable) cause of death in the world, many know that tobacco renders cumulative negative impacts in the body. Tobacco or cigarette smoke, in particular, contains over 4,000 chemicals (with many of them added separately or due to processing), including nicotine, formaldehyde, chlorine, and benzene, with around 70 of them being carcinogenic.
For the most part, you won’t find any of these harmful compounds in pure cannabis smoke. Among a litany of other problems, exposure to tobacco cigarette smoke can lead to a multitude of cancers and other conditions like hypertension, lung disease, and heart disease.
When we analyse cannabis’ effect on lung health, we have to consider how it’s smoked (vaporizers, pens, joints, blunts, pipes), which are all different than tobacco.
When compared with tobacco, Cannabis smokers tend to inhale deeper and hold the smoke in their lungs for a period of time, which would theoretically mean greater carcinogenic exposure to the lungs. And, as we mentioned earlier, inhalation of anything burned also includes their products and by-products.
Like tobacco smoke, cannabis smoke contains carcinogens and irritants, which can cause people who smoke to suffer difficulties with lung function including bouts of coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory and pulmonary effects caused from repeated marijuana exposures.
Despite these similarities, the little evidence we have has yet to prove anything concrete in the case of cannabis smoke. There are many areas of concern, and the biggest of those lies with whether smoking marijuana can cause significant effects on lung health, particularly in cases of chronic cannabis usage.
The Effects of Cannabis Smoke
Knowing that cannabis can also be carcinogenic, it seems natural to assume that the respiratory effects of inhalational marijuana would be equal to the dangers of smoking tobacco. But pharmacologically speaking, the different mechanisms of these two substances shows that they are not equally carcinogenic. Before any conclusions are made on the effects of smoking, it’s essential to understand that the adverse effects in the body come from the smoke produced by combustion of cannabis and not from inhalation of its cannabinoids such as THC or CBD.
Marijuana smoke differs from tobacco or cigarette smoke in that some of its components demonstrate anti-cancer properties. Carcinogens cause cancer. And when cancer forms in the body, it can live indefinitely. While there are no clear signs that tobacco’s nicotine itself causes cancer, cannabis’ THC and CBD respond to immunological threats in the body like endocannabinoids by inducing apoptosis, or cell death, thus preventing the unregulated cancer growth.
Indeed, studies suggest that THC also inhibits carcinogens and may be able to protect humans from the damages of its exposure. This, of course, puts the claim that cannabis is twenty times more carcinogenic than tobacco into serious question.
Moreover, it is believed that the anti-inflammatory properties of THC can support pulmonary health. Smoking leads to airway inflammation and can become severe if left untreated. Fortunately, by opening the passageways in the lungs, THC acts as a bronchodilator, decreasing vascular abnormalities, thus, improving airflow in the body.