Everyone, by this point, knows about the perils of smoking cigarettes. Tobacco and all tobacco products carry significant risks for respiratory illness, chronic disease, and cancer. Yet, despite this knowledge, more than 8 million people die due to cigarette smoke each year around the world. Now, with the rise of legal cannabis, weed smokers have questions.
Is cannabis smoke bad for your lungs too?
First, let’s dive into the good news. Based on a growing body of well-controlled research, cannabis smoke does not cause any of the cancers nor chronic diseases that are now strongly associated with smoking tobacco products. To date, the most comprehensive scientific reviews we have available on the subject can’t find a significant statistical association between cannabis smoke and lung cancer, prostate cancer, neck or throat Cancer, or hospital admissions related to COPD. This is good news indeed for everyone out there that loves to smoke weed.
But what about the bad news? You can breathe easy knowing that there are few if any issues with smoking cannabis infrequently or for short spurts. But, smoking anything, cannabis or not, is an irritant for the sensitive cells lining your lungs. If you aren’t breathing clean, pure air all the time, you can expect a few issues.
Is smoking weed bad for your lungs is a very complicated question. So, let’s get into the details.
Smoking Weed Doesn’t Cause Cancer
According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. In the United States, cigarette smoking is linked to about 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths.”
But what about smoking weed? The National Academies of Science, one of the leading resources for current research into the benefits and risks of cannabis use determined, “no statistical association between cannabis use and incidence of lung cancer” and no statistical association between cannabis use and incidence of head and neck cancers.”
No matter how much you smoke weed, there is little to no risk of developing cancers of the respiratory tract. Even beyond the lungs, this also covers cancers of the gum, mouth, neck and head.
But, you may want to know a small detail. The National Academies of Science report published in 2017 did find cannabis consumption may slightly increase the risk of a rare testicular cancer called Non-seminoma-type testicular cancer.
What About Other Respiratory Illnesses?
So if respiratory cancers are not a concern, what about other respiratory issues? Here is where it gets complicated. Cannabis seems to improve lung function, but smoking weed leads to an increased risk of certain problematic conditions under some circumstances.
First, more of the good news. As per the 2017 report, the acute use of cannabis helps improve airway functions, which means that short term smoking may actually help your breathing capacity.
This benefit may come down to cannabis’ powerful anti-inflammatory benefits. The researchers did not find this same positive association with chronic use. If you smoke every day, you could encounter some issues.
There is a strong connection between smoking weed chronically (i.e. every day) and an increased risk for bronchial infection. As they stated, daily weed smokers can expect “Worse respiratory symptoms and more frequent chronic bronchitis episodes.”
As you inhale fine-cannabis particulate in every puff of smoke, some of this organic material settles on the interior of your lungs. In response, your body produces more phlegm in an effort to protect the sensitive tissues of your lungs. Over time, the phlegm builds up, with more smoke particles layered on top, to create the perfect environment for bacteria to take hold. Chronic bronchial infections are common among daily smokers.
How do you know if you are suffering from cannabis-smoke-related respiratory issues? Do you smoke daily and now experience some of the following symptoms:
- Excess phlegm
- Tight chest
- Difficulty taking big inhales
If so, it may be time for a break — which leads back to the good news. The researchers also discovered that the easiest way to reduce this risk was to take a break. As soon as cannabis consumers stopped smoking weed, their chronic respiratory issues went away as the phlegm and outside irritants dissipated.
Is Vaping Better for Your Lungs?
Now that we have established that smoking weed has limited long-term repercussions for your lungs and respiratory tract, let’s explore the risks of vaping weed. Across both the tobacco and cannabis industries, vaping is often advertised as better for your lungs. But, is this true?
Most of the risk associated with cannabis smoke comes from the fine-particulate matter floating around in the smoke. If you remove these burnt pieces of plant material from the inhalation, can you reduce the risks? The early research seems to suggest so. In 2015 researchers compiled the evidence in a paper called “No smoke, no fire: What the initial literature suggests regarding vapourized cannabis and respiratory risk.”
The authors wrote, “The majority of studies suggest that vapourizers adequately reduce risk of pulmonary symptoms.” The kicker is there isn’t a lot of scientific research into the issue, even five years after publication. The latest update published in 2020 stated, “Laboratory studies indicate that vaporization of cannabis produces similar pulmonal uptake of THC relative to smoking but reduces the negative respiratory impact of smoking.”
So, the details on if vaping is better than smoking remains a bit smoky, if you can forgive the pun.
Smoking Weed is Not Damaging to Long Health (With a Few Caveats)
At the end of the day, there is no real comparison between the impacts of tobacco smoke and weed smoke. Even if you smoke cannabis on a daily basis, you can rest easy knowing that there are no known risks for cancer or other chronic lung diseases so associated with cigarettes. This is very good news, indeed.
But, chronic cannabis smoking may increase your risk for bronchitis. If you find yourself in this situation, a short break from smoking can help clear it up. Plus, you can always enjoy the benefits of cannabis without smoking anything at all. Experts believe that vaping is a healthier alternative, and let’s not forget edibles that skip the respiratory tract altogether. That’s the beauty of this plant — it is flexible to your needs!