Smoking is bad. Nicotine is addictive. Cigarettes cause cancer. And yet, despite this widespread, common knowledge, street corners are filled with people sucking on cigarettes or sleek, fruity vapes. But when it comes to smoking marijuana, is it as deteriorative to lung health as cigarettes?
There are numerous ways to ingest marijuana. It can be smoked in a rolling paper, a hand-held piece, dabbing (vaping oil extracts or concentrates), vape, home-made device, or bong. It can also be consumed orally through tinctures, oils, or edibles. Known for its medicinal qualities, it can help with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety, in addition to helping cancer patients abate their nausea and pain. Though, in fact, the medical benefits have not been well documented in research and Marijuana can have sustained neurological and cognitive effects.
Despite the medicinal properties, smoking marijuana can be just as irritating for the lungs as smoking a cigarette. And much like cigarettes, marijuana contains tar and other volatile chemicals. However, since the practice of smoking marijuana requires a slower pace– inhaling and holding the smoke in the lungs before exhalation– this may keep marijuana smokers from smoking with as high a frequency as a cigarette smoker. In addition, the effects of marijuana– the high– lasts longer than the length of one cigarette. Marijuana smokers may be at a slight advantage over cigarette and cigar smokers simply because of consumption methods and the sustained effect of the high.
That does not mean that smoking marijuana is actively healthy. When focusing on lung health it has been found that the deeper inhalation held for an extended period leads to four times the deposition of tar compared to cigarette smoking. According to the National Institute on Drug abuse, marijuana contains “carcinogenic combustion products, including about 50 percent more benzoprene and 75 percent more benzanthracene (and more phenols, vinyl chlorides, nitrosamines, reactive oxygen species) than cigarette smoke.” In addition, second-hand smoke from marijuana is equally as problematic, though the research for ramifications of inhaling second-hand marijuana smoke is sparse and needs more attention.
Chronic users of marijuana suffer from respiratory problems. According to Dr. Drew, “The lung cancer risk seems to be a nominal. Chronic bronchitis, however, is extremely common in people who smoke marijuana straight from a cigarette (or joint) or even a bong. Vaping and vaporizers, probably better. We don’t see as much chronic bronchitis (when smoked that way).” One study supports this opinion by finding that people who smoke marijuana had more outpatient medical visits concerning their respiratory system than non-smokers.
There is conflicting evidence when it comes to what method of inhalation is the least destructive. According to the Harm Reduction Journal, there are decreased respiratory symptoms when marijuana is smoked through a bong. Vaping is commonly viewed as the safest option. However just this past week, The New York Times reported about dozens of people who were hospitalized for severe respiratory problems caused by vaping nicotine or marijuana. It has been unclear what agent within the e-cigarettes or vapes is causing the severe health ramifications.or the products being vaped in these cases. Dr. David D. Gummin, medical director of the Wisconsin Poison Center, and professor and chief of medical toxicology at the Medical College of Wisconsin said, “We have no leads pointing to a specific substance other than those that are associated with smoking or vaping.” The mode of vaping, which once felt like the safest alternative, is now in question. The jury is still out.
The American Lung Association cautions the public to not smoke marijuana because of the risk it poses to lung health. There have been “cases of air pockets in between both lungs and between the lungs and the chest wall, as well as large air bubbles in the lungs among young to middle-aged adults, mostly heavy smokers of marijuana.” But the correlation between marijuana smokers and these pockets of air is not explicitly clear, it just happens to occur more frequently in marijuana smokers than the general public. ER visits have been escalating in states where Cannabis has been legalized, primarily for GI disturbances (something that has occasionally been referred to as ‘Scromiting’ – such intense vomiting that the patients begin screaming and vomiting simultaneously) and marked increase in substance induced psychosis.
Although research has not found a correlation between smoking marijuana and lung cancer, the effects of smoking are still detrimental even if they are not completely known. Dr. Emily Chapman, chief medical officer for the Children’s Minnesota hospital system, confirms this lack of knowledge: “The truth of the matter is, we have so little experience with vaping, relative to the experience we have with cigarettes and cigars. Recall how long it took us to figure out that cigarettes were linked to lung cancer. There is so much we don’t know.” Most of the research done is incomplete or inconclusive, however it is presumed that within the next few decades we will begin to see the effects of chronic marijuana smoking on the lungs.