Is smoking cannabis just as bad as smoking cigarettes? What about secondhand cannabis smoke? These are very good questions, with some complicated answers. There has been significantly more research performed on tobacco smoke, but the evidence so far suggests that these two plants are not equal. Here’s the scoop on weed smoke vs. cigarette smoke:
What’s the deal with smoking, anyway?
Humans have been working with fire for thousands of years. During this time, evidence suggests that homo sapiens have developed genetic adaptations to better clear out toxins from smoke.
A 2016 study published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution found that only homo sapiens, not our early Neanderthal or Denisovan ancestors, can break down smoke-based toxins at a safe rate.
While this superpower is awesome, it has also allowed humans to pick up some bad habits. There’s a difference between standing in front of a smokey fire and inhaling burning plant matter into your lungs directly.
Breathing in smoke toxins can cause respiratory infections, weaken your immune system, and even disrupt the reproductive system.
However, further research suggests that not all smoke is created equal. While most smoke contains carcinogens, molecules that damage cell processes and contribute to cancer, different plants, and substances create different off gasses when burned. Some of these off gasses may be more harmful than others.
Cannabis smoke vs. cigarette smoke
When it comes to the act of smoking, research suggests that tobacco is far more harmful to the lungs than cannabis. In terms of the impact of cannabis smoke on other parts of the body, more research is sorely needed. Thus far, one major downer about smoke of all kinds is aging.
Smoke, including smoke from cannabis, exposes the skin to environmental free radicals that promote wrinkle formation and visible aging of the skin. Opting for a bong or a vape reduces the impact of cannabis smoke on the skin.
Another study suggests that long-term cannabis smoke is associated with an increased risk of periodontal disease, perhaps due to the irritating effects of hot smoke on the gums. Though, it is difficult to tell whether or not other lifestyle factors contribute to this problem.
For the more serious issues, here is a very brief summary of how tobacco and cannabis smoke compare to one another:
1. Cannabis smoke
Studies have failed to find a correlation between moderate cannabis use and lung cancer, nor head and neck cancers. In fact, one 2015 study found that smoking one the equivalent of joint a day for up to 20 years was not associated with decreased lung function.
Though, the verdict is still out on whether or not heavy cannabis consumption increases lung cancer risks.
Cannabis smoke, however, isn’t completely innocent. Research shows that the herb can cause damage to large airways, as one might expect after inhaling hot, burning plant matter. This damage appears to be reversible after individuals stop smoking. Regularly inhaling cannabis smoke may also cause bronchitis symptoms
A 2016 rodent study suggests that one minute of exposure to secondhand cannabis smoke caused harm to blood vessels. Specifically, blood vessels in rats took three times longer to return to normal function after smoke exposure.
It’s important to point out that while humans and rodents have similar blood vessels, this research has only been conducted in animals. As mentioned above, humans do seem to have some ability to more effectively metabolize smoke toxins than other animals, though how this comes into play for cannabis smokers is speculative.
2. Cigarette smoke
80 to 90 percent of lung cancer cases are caused by tobacco smoke. Further, tobacco is associated with over 400,000 annual deaths in the United States alone. Cannabis consumption has yet to be conclusively associated with a single death. A 2005 study suggests that cannabis and cigarette smoke are not equally carcinogenic.
Tobacco smoke also contains N-nitrosamines, which are considered the primary contributors to tobacco-related cancers. Cannabis does not contain N-nitrosamines.
Cigarette smoke also contains nicotine, whereas cannabis smoke contains cannabinoids. Nicotine consumption is associated with an increased risk of developing insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and thyroid problems.
While it was commonly thought that the tar and carcinogenic molecules in smoke are the primary cause of tobacco-related cancer, recent studies suggest that nicotine may actually enhance tumor development.
The carcinogens in cigarette smoke are known to not only contribute to lung cancer, but to colon and rectal cancers as well. In contrast, the cannabinoids in cannabis have shown protective, anti-tumor effects in lung, breast, prostate, skin, and other forms of the disease.