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Marijuana and Your Risk of Lung Cancer

In this Article

In this Article
In this Article
  • Why It Might Be Harmful
  • Questions Remain
  • The Future

Marijuana, both for recreation and medical use, is becoming legal in more states. Even as more people use it, health experts aren’t sure whether smoking pot raises your odds of getting lung cancer. Here’s what researchers know — and don’t know — about the connection.

Why It Might Be Harmful

The link between tobacco smoke and lung cancer is well-known. Studies show that marijuana smoke has many of the same harmful substances as tobacco, and often more of them. Among the hazards are:

  • Benzo(a)pyrene
  • Benz(a)anthracene
  • Phenols
  • Vinyl chlorides
  • Nitrosamines
  • Reactive oxygen species

People also smoke marijuana in a different way than tobacco, possibly posing greater danger to the lungs:

  • You usually inhale marijuana smoke deeply and hold it in, which gives the toxins more contact with your lung tissue and more chance to stick there.
  • You generally a smoke a joint all the way to the end. Tar, the sticky stuff left after burning, has high levels of harmful substances, and it’s concentrated at the end of a joint.

When scientists looked at lung tissue of some people who smoked weed regularly, they found changes that are known to signal the future growth of cancer.

Questions Remain

Given what scientists already know, why is it so hard to say how smoking pot affects your chances of getting lung cancer?

Studies that have looked for a direct link between the two have conflicting results — some found evidence that ties marijuana to lung cancer, while other data show little to no connection.

The topic is also tough to investigate. Scientists say a few factors limit how reliable the research is.

Most of the research on marijuana dates to when it was still widely illegal. It’s hard to gather information about behavior that’s against the law. Most studies have asked people to report how often they smoked marijuana, and researchers know that these kinds of surveys, called “self-reported,” aren’t as reliable as when they collect data in other ways. That’s because people don’t remember their behavior perfectly or might underestimate or conceal how often they do something that others think is wrong.

Continued

Illegal marijuana, unlike tobacco, doesn’t have any controls on its strength or quality. People don’t use the same amount in one “dose.” That makes it hard for researchers to set standards to measure its effects.

Another problem is that many people who smoke marijuana also smoke tobacco, sometimes mixed in the same cigarette. So if they get lung cancer, it’s impossible to sort out what substance caused it.

Some marijuana smokers in the studies have been fairly young, which could skew the results. Cancers can take time to grow.

On the other hand, most people who use weed don’t smoke as much as a tobacco user, which could lower their odds for a problem.

Animal research suggests that some chemicals in marijuana work against tumor growth, which could explain why lung cancer isn’t showing up as often as scientists might expect in people who smoke it. The studies on this are in their early days, and researchers need to take a deeper look into this theory.

The Future

Now that marijuana is legal in more places, growers are making the product more standard and stronger. More people are smoking pot, too.

Any link between marijuana smoking and lung cancer isn’t clear now, but researchers have a chance to move beyond some of the problems that have made studies unclear in the past.

Sources

National Conference of State Legislatures: “State Medical Marijuana Laws.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Marijuana.”

American Cancer Society: “Small Cell Lung Cancer Risk Factors.”

University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute: “Learn About Marijuana.”

Chest: “Cannabis Smoking in 2015.”

NPJ Primary Care Respiratory Medicine: “Effect of cannabis smoking on lung function and respiratory symptoms: a structured literature review.”

Scientists aren’t sure if smoking pot makes you more likely to get lung cancer, but they do know some things about the link.

Blunts, Spliffs, and Joints: What to Know Before You Roll Up

The terms blunt, spliff, and joint are often used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same. To make things a bit more complicated, pot lingo varies from place to place.

Here’s a look at what it all means in the United States.

Blunts are cigars that have had the tobacco removed and replaced with marijuana. They can also be rolled using tobacco leaf wrappers.

As for the name? It comes from the Phillies Blunt cigar brand.

According to various internet sources, blunts originated in New York as a method for smoking pot discreetly, among other things.

What to know

Here are some things to consider before you get out that tobacco leaf or hit the corner store for a blunt wrap:

  • Blunts containa lotmore pot.Cigars are a lot bigger than the average joint, which means they can hold a lot more pot. Smoking an entire blunt is roughly the equivalent of smoking six joints.
  • Cigars and their wrappers are highly toxic. Even if you remove the tobacco, high concentrations of cancer-causing nitrosamines and other toxins created during the fermentation process may remain. And because cigar wrappers are more porous than rolling papers, the burning is less complete, resulting in smoke that has higher concentrations of toxins.
  • You’re inhaling harmful toxins. All smoke is harmful to lung health, no matter what you’re inhaling. According to the American Lung Association, marijuana smoke contains a lot of the same toxins and carcinogens as tobacco smoke. Smoking pot usually involves inhaling deeper and holding large amounts of unfiltered smoke for longer. This exposes you to even more irritants and toxins that damage your lungs and airways.

A spliff is a blend of cannabis and tobacco, usually in cigarette rolling papers.

The word spliff is West Indian and is said to be a take on the words “split” — as in split the difference between weed and tobacco — and “whiff,” referring to the smell of the smoke. Or, perhaps, referring to how adding tobacco masks the smell of the pot.

What to know

Adding tobacco means less pot, which is good, right? Not necessarily.

Both marijuana and tobacco smoke can damage your lungs and increase your risk for several serious conditions. Adding tobacco to marijuana just means you’re getting the damaging effects of tobacco, too.

Here’s what you need to know before getting spliffy with it:

  • Smoking tobacco and weed together can increase your risk for addiction. There’s evidence that smoking marijuana with tobacco increases cannabis dependence symptoms. The two appear to balance out the negative symptoms caused by both. Smoked together, they also seem to enhance the enjoyable symptoms, such as relaxation. This makes a person less likely to notice the ill effects, and more likely to keep smoking.
  • Unfiltered tobacco smoke increases your risk for lung cancer and death. A recent study found that people who smoke unfiltered cigarettes are twice as likely to die from lung cancer and 30 percent more likely to die of any cause than smokers of filtered cigarettes. A spliff may contain less tobacco than a cigarette, but it’s still unfiltered tobacco smoke nonetheless.

Joints are the simplest of the bunch. They’re just ground marijuana rolled in cigarette papers. Sometimes people roll them with a crutch, which is basically just a stiffer bit of paper to hold the weed in place.

What to know

Unlike spliffs and blunts, which contain tobacco, joints contain nothing but cannabis and the paper it’s rolled in. The upside to smoking joints is that you’re not exposing yourself to tobacco or nicotine.

Still, they’re not much better for you:

  • Marijuana smoke can be just as harmful as tobacco smoke. Smoking marijuana irritates the lungs. People who smoke it often have the same breathing issues as tobacco smokers, such as chronic cough and frequent lung infections.
  • Smoking marijuana may cause air pockets in the lungs. According to the American Lung Association, smoking weed has been linked to the development of large air bubbles in the lungs and air pockets between both lungs and the chest wall in young to middle-aged adults who smoke a lot of pot.
  • Secondhand marijuana smoke may be more dangerous than directly inhaled smoke.Secondhand marijuana smoke contains a lot of the same toxins and carcinogens as directly inhaled smoke and may even contain more, according to some research.

You might argue that joints are better for you because there’s no tobacco in a joint, but the benefit is minimal.

There’s no safe way of smoking anything. Joints, spliffs, blunts, pipes, bongs — they all carry risks.

A blunt can be several things, depending on who you ask. We'll take a look at what it usually refers to and how it compares to a joint or spliff.