Cannabis and Health

4 April 2019

What effects does smoking cannabis have on the lungs?

The truth about the damage of smoking cannabis vs tobacco

By Mell Green

There have always been many ways of consuming cannabis. But, for smoking cannabis, in particular, one question has remained unanswered; is there any evidence that it causes the same lung damage as tobacco smoke does? Honestly, more research is desperately needed. Current studies are limited and suffer from fundamental flaws, which has left us with too many contradictory conclusions to count on one hand. Our point is, no matter if you enjoy an occasional toke, take record-setting bong rips, or are a regular consumer, smoke isn’t just smoke.

In this article, we give you the rundown on how the impact of cannabis smoke is different than from that of tobacco smoke and other healthier alternatives you can try.

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.

THC opens up the airways in our body
How THC can act as a bronchodilator to open up the airways of our lungs and help you breath better.

Is cannabis combustion safer than tobacco then? Maybe. But studies have also shown that cannabis smoke contains four times more tar than tobacco smoke does. And yet, those same studies have not shown any evidence this fact has a more damaging impact on our lungs.

Now we know…

Smoking tobacco and smoking cannabis are certainly not the same. There is a lower risk for lung-related issues in cannabis smoke exposure and this may have to do with the pharmacological activities of its ingredients.

Due to the low number of studies and fundamental flaws within them, we should not speculate on the health risks of cannabis smoke based on the effects of tobacco smoke. Indeed, more research must be done to state that there is a similarity.

Smoke-Free alternatives for cannabis

As smoke produced by combustion will always contain irritants, this debate may be moot. However, probably the biggest advantage cannabis has over tobacco is that you don’t have to smoke it. Edibles, ingestible oils, tinctures and topicals, and vaporizing are a couple of ways consumers can enjoy without having to give it up.

Vaping cannabis
Why not try vaporizing your cannabis in the future? Your lungs will be thankful.

Vaping cannabis is becoming particularly popular, and rightfully so. Compared to smoking, cannabis is heated in a vaporizer below the point of combustion and up to a point where vapor forms. This method is much healthier, as it reduces the intake of products and by-products of combustion and doesn’t carry many of the risks associated with smoke inhalation.

Post author
Mell Green
Mell Green is an enthusiast of all things cannabis and writes content that represents some of the best things that we as a people can strive for: good health and happiness.
See more from Mell Green

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