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 special 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 byproducts of burned materials.
Whether you’re smoking tobacco, smoking cannabis, or sitting fireside out camping, materials burned in any form also includes the inhalation of the chemicals within them. However, when we compare cannabis smoke and tobacco smoke particularly, they do not produce the same products and by-products. This might explain why the effects of exposure in cannabis smoke differ from those associated with tobacco 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 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, tobacco smoke exposure can lead to a multitude of cancers and other conditions like hypertension, lung disease, or even heart attack.
When we compare cannabis’ effect on health, we have to consider how it’s smoked (bongs, joints, blunts, pipes), which is typically different than tobacco. Cannabis smokers (not including spliff smokers) tend to inhale deeper and hold the smoke in their lungs for a longer 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 also contains carcinogens and irritants, which can cause smokers to suffer from bouts of coughing, wheezing, acute bronchitis, and other respiratory issues from chronic exposure.
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 cannabis can cause significant negative health outcomes, specifically for the lungs. This apparent paradox may be explained by differences in the composition of cannabis smoke and its effects.
The effects of cannabis smoke
Knowing that cannabis can also be carcinogenic, it seems natural to assume that the risks of smoking it would be equal to the risks of smoking tobacco. But pharmacologically speaking, the different mechanisms of these two substances shows that they are not equally carcinogenic. Before any wrongful conviction is made, it’s important to understand that the negative 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.
Cannabis smoke differs from tobacco 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. Furthermore, 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 20 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.