Smoking tobacco has long been proven harmful to your health, and science leaves little doubt that the smoke that is inhaled from combusted tobacco produces carcinogens that may lead to cancer. Combustible tobacco for example, generates about 70 carcinogens. The vaping process, which heats the elements to just below the burning point, does not force the organic material to undergo that chemical conversion, and is therefore safer.
But what about burning cannabis? Are the health risks the same? A study by the National Institutes of Health does warn against continued exposure to smoke-based irritants, but also notes that, “A review of 19 studies revealed elevated exposure to tars, dysfunctions in alveolar macrophages and histological deviations in bronchial mucosa, but no elevated risk for lung cancer, particularly after controlling for tobacco use.” The NIH paper also noted that one study found that, “after controlling for nicotine use and other factors, cannabis users had an FVC [forced vital capacity], total lung capacity, functional residual capacity and residual volume comparable with those who had not used it.”
The medical language in the NIH study does lend credence to the argument that cannabis is relatively safe, although the paper does conclude that “further work is needed” to determine if there is any link between cannabis use and lung cancer. “Any attempt to try to equate cigarettes and cannabis exactly is probably a fool’s errand,” the study says, but it does put cannabis’ impact on lung cancer in perspective, noting that only 189 cases of lung cancer occurred in over 49,000 participants in a study.
Erring on the Side of Caution
Although the studies would suggest that smoking cannabis is probably safer than smoking tobacco, it would be irresponsible to conclude that there is absolutely no risk. Smoke is smoke, whether you’re burning tobacco or cannabis, and smoke is an irritant. There is always going to be the potential for a negative health impact, especially among younger smokers and teens whose bodies are still developing. The NIH study does say that, “The teen years may be a particularly important time to avoid smoking entirely given that it is a critical period in lung development when exposure to irritants may have a dramatic impact. The point does, however, support the need for some type of intervention, such as the vapourizer, if teens need medical cannabis.”
Whole-plant vaporizers are becoming more widely used and accepted, especially as vaping becomes more popular and those who use cannabis recognize that vaping reduces those irritating respiratory side effects. As the trend continues, online dealers of cannabis vaping hardware are proliferating, with shops like Nug Republic offering a selection of dry herb and concentrate vaporizers that delivers more variety than the smaller brick-and-mortar shops.
Vaporizing Reduces Risk
Most earlier research on the effects of cannabis did not control for the type of inhalation mechanism, but those studies that do so demonstrate some benefit of vaporizers, which sidestep the potential respiratory risks. The NIH report says, “The majority of studies suggest that vapourizers adequately reduce risk of pulmonary symptoms, although complete safety may require a regulated source of plant material, rather than ‘street’ samples, which produce ammonia.”
One vaporizer experiment compared vaporized research-grade cannabis with burned cannabis. In the study, vaporization yielded vapor which mainly included cannabinoids, with only trace amounts of three other compounds. The smoke produced from burned cannabis on the other hand, produced a lower ratio of cannabinoids to overall gas space, with a total of 111 detectable compounds, five of which were organic pollutants with known toxic and carcinogenic effects. It’s clear that the findings suggest that vaping cannabis greatly reduces those toxic byproducts, in much the same way that vaping tobacco reduces the carcinogenic effects that are delivered primarily via tobacco smoke.
The report concludes, “Suggestions to patients to consider choosing vapourization over burning methods appear to be worthwhile.”
An Argument for Legalization
Whether vaporized or smoked though, there is a risk when purchasing cannabis on the underground market. NIH further notes that street samples of cannabis will include some toxins that cannot be eliminated by vaporizers, and when researchers compared street samples with legal samples using ion-flow tube mass spectrometry, the street samples included more toxins, including ammonia. A legalized and regulated market will help to eliminate these sorts of problems.
The results of the study are clear: “Smoking marijuana does not harm lung function as dramatically as smoking tobacco does.” However, respiratory irritation such as tightness in the chest, wheezing and coughing will increase, and it does have the potential to alter lung function, and the study concludes, “The cannabis vapourizer appears to be an ideal harm-reduction approach to safer use.”