No one can deny that smoking cigarettes increases the chance of developing lung cancer, but what about marijuana? Does smoking weed regularly increase your risk for lung cancer?
Though researchers haven’t done as much study when it comes to marijuana effects on the lungs in comparison to nicotine effects, the American Lung Association has concerns. They are cautioning marijuana users about smoking it because it can cause damage to the lungs over time, and it may increase the risk of cancer.
Marijuana, also known as weed or pot, comes from the plant Cannabis sativa. The flowers of the plant are dried and usually smoked in hand-rolled joints, pipes, and water pipes called bongs. Today, they’re also becoming more popular in vapes.
THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive chemical in pot, which is the mind-altering part of the plant. People have been using marijuana for many centuries, as it’s rather easy to grow, and users report that it helps them relax, feel euphoric, and sometimes have a mild psychedelic “trip.” However, in many parts of the world, the plant is illegal to grow and use.
When marijuana is inhaled, the smoke can irritate the throat and lungs, causing some people to cough when they smoke it. The makeup of weed includes volatile chemicals and tar, like what you’ll find in a cigarette. These chemicals in marijuana are what concern health officials when it comes to the risks of cancer or lung disease.
When marijuana is smoked, it can cause the airways to become inflamed and the lungs become hyperinflated. The inflammation causes resistance in the airway, making it harder for air to get through. According to health officials, those who smoke marijuana regularly report that they come down with chronic bronchitis more frequently than those who don’t.
Some studies report that smoking marijuana regularly increases the chance of getting a lung infection like pneumonia. Others report that there may be a decrease in the immune system response. However, when it comes to answering the question, “Does smoking marijuana cause lung cancer?”, the answer is not clear.
According to the U.S. Library of National Medicine, “Smoking cannabis has been further linked with symptoms of chronic bronchitis… Based on immuno-histopathological and epidemiological evidence, smoking cannabis poses a potential risk for developing lung cancer. At present, however, the association between smoking cannabis and the development of lung cancer is not decisive.”
Just like cigarettes, marijuana contains ingredients that are considered carcinogenic, including double the amount of benzo(a)pyrene and three quarters more benzanthracene. It also contains more tar, nitrosamines, phenols, reactive oxygen species, carbon monoxide concentration, ammonia, and vinyl chlorides.
Actually, smoking marijuana causes you to experience more tar deposits (four times more) than cigarettes because you tend to hold the smoke in the lungs longer and inhale deeper. It also has a higher combustion temperature. When smoked as a joint, many people smoke it to a shorter butt length than cigarettes.
Still, despite a few independent studies that suggest that heavy pot smoking can increase cancer risks, the more controlled studies have not found an increased risk when it comes to marijuana smoking and cancer.
One factor to consider is that it’s typical for marijuana smokers to smoke less than cigarette smokers. The effects of pot last longer, so typically, you smoke less, whereas a cigarette smoker may light up every 30 minutes to an hour.
Smoking marijuana regularly has been found to harm the lungs. In 2011, a systematic review of research indicated that it causes injury to the cell linings of the lungs, which can cause a consistent cough, wheeze, produce phlegm, or experience acute bronchitis. (Howden & Naughton, 2011).
Air pockets can also form in between the chest wall and lungs and between both lungs. And, consistent smoking marijuana can weaken the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off illness or disease. Although there is no clear evidence that marijuana smokers experience these things more than those who don’t, reports indicate they do show up at the doctor more often with respiratory conditions.
There hasn’t been a lot of research done yet on “vaping” marijuana. Health experts are concerned about this method, as it could very well cause similar respiratory health problems as those who use e-cigarettes. Though many think it’s safer to “vape” weed, the reality is that the vape devices have been said to emit ammonia, which can be inhaled by the person using the vape. The ammonia can cause lung irritation, and it can also affect the central nervous system. (Bloor et al. 2008).
A Washington State study did not find an increased risk of lung cancer in marijuana smokers. (Rosenblatt et al. 2004). Other lung diseases that have been concerning are bullous lung disease and pneumothorax, which is a collapsed lung. There has not been any clinical evidence that marijuana smoking causes these two lung diseases, but the theory is there. (Tam et al. 2006).
Also, it’s sometimes challenging to do studies specifically on marijuana smokers because many of them also smoke cigarettes. However, health experts have not ruled out that there is a correlation between chronic marijuana smokers and cancer.
While it comes as no surprise that many people use marijuana as a means to relieve pain, smoking the substance may not always be the healthiest way. Despite the research concluding with no evidence indicating lung cancer, there are still variables that must be taken into consideration. Smoke of any form entering the lungs can be dangerous. Our lungs are designed solely to receive oxygen. While there has been a lot of research on the topic, more must be done on a long-term basis to determine how marijuana smoke can affect our bodies.
Someone that uses marijuana should consider alternative methods, such as using it in pill form or using edibles. By ingesting marijuana in this way, it still provides the same relief you’ve come to expect from the drug while decreasing your chances of harming your body with smoke. These methods have been proven effective and also provide a much more potent effect for the user. While it may not be a feasible long-term solution, it is something that can be used to reduce marijuana smoking. In turn, it can reduce the associated risks that are present from smoking.
The scientific research isn’t all that clear on the true effects of marijuana on the lungs. Despite some studies that have been done, there’s no definitive proof that marijuana causes lung cancer. However, there are health care professionals who assert that chronic marijuana smokers may experience respiratory tract damage and more respiratory infections.
Despite the lack of clinical evidence, many in the medical field do believe that those who smoke marijuana regularly may be at a higher risk of developing lung cancer. There must be more studies done to really evaluate the hypothesis, as research has been limited to date.
If you’re smoking marijuana regularly, or if you’re addicted to marijuana, know that there is a chance that this is affecting your lungs in a negative way. If you need help with overcoming marijuana addiction, treatment is available. Reach out for help today and begin to walk your recovery path.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are marijuana's effects on lung health? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/what-are-marijuanas-effects-lung-health
Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Respiratory Effects of Marijuana. Retrieved from http://adai.uw.edu/marijuana/factsheets/respiratoryeffects.htm
U.S. National Library of Medicine. Damaging Effects of Cannabis Use on the Lungs. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27573646
Grinspoon, P. (2019, June 25). Medical marijuana. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/medical-marijuana-2018011513085
Marijuana and Lung Health. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/stop-smoking/smoking-facts/marijuana-and-lung-health.html